When fast food workers first marched off their jobs in late 2012 to protest for $15-an-hour pay, their demands seemed as hopeless as they were heartfelt. In labor-friendly New York, where the protests began, the state minimum wage was just $7.25, same as the federal rate. President Obama was still a full year from backing a national minimum of $10.10. In most of the country, liberals had spent the past two years on defense, fighting kamikaze tactics by Tea Party Republicans in Congress and trying to fend off labor-gutting legislation in the states. Doubling the pay floor wasn’t on anybody’s to-do list.
Those marches, of course, kicked off the movement now known as Fight for $15. Far from hopeless, it has turned out to be the most successful progressive political project of the late Obama era, both practically and philosophically. On Thursday, California became the first state to pass a $15 minimum, which will be phased in by 2022, giving raises to a projected 5.6 million workers. Just hours later, lawmakers in Albany struck a deal that will raise the minimum within New York City to $15 by the end of 2018, before gradually ratcheting it that high across the rest of the Empire State.
Maybe the most remarkable things about both bills was that they were considered compromises. In California, elected Democrats chose to pass their own legislation in order to head off a popular, union-backed ballot initiative that would have raised the minimum even faster. In New York, Gov. Andrew Cuomo had pushed for a true statewide $15 minimum. But he agreed to let wages rise much more slowly in poorer regions upstate—first to $12.50 by 2020, then eventually up to $15 with raises following a set formula—all as a concession to conservatives who worried businesses in their districts wouldn’t be able to afford drastically higher payrolls.
Consider that for a moment. Raising the minimum to $12.50 in New York’s rust belt was considered a mushy fallback position to appease Republicans. That’s how far the Fight for $15 has shifted the Overton window when it comes to talking about pay. It has revived Franklin Roosevelt’s old idea that a minimum wage should be a living wage, or at least near to it—a concept that seemed thoroughly dead for decades.
Cuomo himself, who undoubtedly still has some national political ambitions, embodies this rapid shift as well as anybody. Just last year, before he found religion on wages thanks to political pressure from his left, the governor wrote off Mayor Bill de Blasio’s plea for a $13 minimum in New York City as a political “non-starter.” Today, that idea wouldn’t even count as half a loaf.
Is is all this economically wise? Nobody really knows for sure, but I have my doubts. Living in cities like Los Angeles and San Francisco is expensive largely because of their dysfunctional housing markets. Asking low-margin businesses to make up for insane rents by paying their workers more could simply result in more unemployment, especially for less-educated and young adults who tend to rely on minimum wage jobs. And it’s hard to think of a good reason why a business in, say, Yuba County, California—unemployment rate 15.8 percent—should pay its employees enough to rent in the Bay Area.
On the other hand, even California is being somewhat cautious. By the time the minimum reaches $15, it should be worth about $13 and change in today’s dollars, thanks to inflation. States like New York and Oregon are using the wonk-approved model of raising wages higher or faster in rich cities than lower-income suburbs or rural areas, an idea that had little mainstream momentum before Fight for $15.
In some ways, that’s all besides the point. Successful political movements aren’t typically built on careful econometric analysis, after all. Workers rallied around the idea of $15 an hour in 2012 because it sounded like a wage they could live on, and was marginally more realistic than $20. The Fight for $15 is rolling up victories precisely because it hasn’t been reasonable.