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Opinion: Fight for $15 -- Unfinished Business of Civil Rights Movement

Raising wages helps our economy by giving small businesses precisely what they need more of -- customers with money to spend

milly silva
Milly Silva

In 1963, one of the key demands laid out by Dr. Martin Luther King and the organizers of the March on Washington was “a national minimum wage act that will give all Americans a decent standard of living.” According to the marchers’ platform, a minimum wage of at least $2.00 an hour would be needed.

Today, that $2.00 would translate into $15.49, adjusting for inflation.

Over half a century later, Americans like Ella Moton, a grandmother who works as a certified nursing assistant in Jersey City, are still fighting to realize the dream of a minimum wage that allows hard-working families to lift themselves out of poverty.

Despite working the past 15 years providing critical care to some of her communities’ most vulnerable residents, Ella makes just $11.59 an hour. She says that earning low pay forces families like hers to adapt to a way of life that many take for granted: “I can’t afford chicken, so I buy beans and rice instead. I don’t have money for the laundromat so I wash my clothes by hand at home. There are times when I’m not able to keep the electricity on and the food in my refrigerator spoils.”

Families like Ella’s have been waiting far too long for a raise. Indeed, progress over the past several decades to raise the minimum wage has been so bleak that the real value of our current $7.25 federal minimum wage is actually lower than it was when Dr. King spoke from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.

Despite huge boosts in worker productivity and vast income gains by the richest 1 percent in recent years, millions of working Americans are living on the edge. According to Legal Services of New Jersey, here in the Garden State the number of residents in poverty is the highest it’s been in fifty years.

This is why it’s so exciting to witness the Fight for $15 movement capture the nation’s attention and lead to a cascade of victories -- for millions of low-wage workers in New York and California, 35,000 home healthcare workers in Massachusetts, and 100,000 workers in Seattle who in 2014 were the first to show that winning a $15 minimum wage was possible.

It is remarkable how far, and how quickly, the national conversation has shifted. Fifteen dollars is no longer an unattainable goal, and we are closer than ever before to finally achieving this central piece of the Civil Rights Movement’s economic agenda.

Contrary to the stereotype of teenagers being the ones who fill most low-wage jobs, the reality is that most minimum and low-wage work is performed by adults, typically women and disproportionately people of color. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), over half of workers earning at or below the federal minimum wage are over the age of 25, and 88 percent are high school graduates. A majority of African-Americans and 60 percent of Latinos make less than $15 an hour.

Here in New Jersey, more than a third of our workforce earns under $15. Yet in a state with such a high cost of living, a single parent with one child needs to make nearly $25 an hour just to cover the basic necessities.

Four of the top five occupations projected by the BLS to experience the most job growth over the next decade pay less than $15: personal care aides, home health aides, food prep and service workers, and retail salespersons. Our economy is doomed to be a low-wage economy with ever-rising poverty levels unless we transform such jobs into decent-paying employment.

Corporate lobbyists continue to hammer the narrative that raising wages across the board will jeopardize small businesses and cause layoffs for the very people the minimum wage is intended to help. But this argument is not borne out by evidence, nor by the recent experiences of Seattle, Los Angeles, and other cities that have not seen the sky fall as naysayers predicted.

Over 200 economists recently wrote a letter pointing out that “the weight of evidence from the extensive professional literature has, for decades, consistently found that no significant effects on employment opportunities result when the minimum wage rises in reasonable increments.” They conclude that a minimum wage of $15 an hour “will be an effective means of improving living standards for low-wage workers and their families and will help stabilize the economy. The costs to other groups in society will be modest and readily absorbed.”

Raising wages helps our economy by giving small businesses precisely what they need more of -- customers with money to spend. Every worker given a raise is also a consumer with extra money to buy clothes, groceries, school supplies, and other goods that businesses sell.

Today there are few issues that New Jerseyans agree on more than raising our paltry $8.38 minimum wage. Thankfully, our state Senate and Assembly have heeded the call and passed a bill that will raise our minimum wage to $15 by 2021. All that’s needed now for history to be made is Gov. Chris Christie’s signature.

At a time when political partisanship is at an all-time high and serious debate too often deteriorates into political name-calling and gamesmanship, we can’t let this moment pass us by. The movement for a living wage has roots that go deep into our county’s history of struggle for civil rights and economic justice. As we celebrate the 52nd anniversary of the Civil Rights Act on July 2nd, there is no better way to honor the contributions and sacrifices of civil rights heroes than by winning the Fight for $15. Gov. Christie, it’s time to act.

Milly Silva serves as executive vice president of 1199SEIU United Healthcare Workers East, the largest union of healthcare workers in the United States.

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