- How the Fight for a $15 Minimum Wage Echos a Great Labor Struggle Nearly 150 Years Ago
It’s been 13 years since the federal minimum wage was bumped up to $7.25 an hour and 145 years since the federal government, together with various police and so-called militia in 10 states, killed or wounded more than 1,000 American workers nationwide in the “Great Upheaval of 1877.” As frustrating as the federal minimum wage has been, it’s good, some would say, to see advances like this being made. Look how far we’ve come—no bullets.
Except, of course, the confluence of the grim milestones in American labor history do not represent the triumph of incremental change. They are, instead, stark reminders of just how determined the system is, and always has been, to keep working people down. Push back too hard against economic inequality like the strikers in the alternatively-named “Great Railroad Strike of 1877” did, grow too frustrated with the federal minimum wage or other bogus avenues of institutionalized change—and you too will be slapped down in the most violent and repressive ways imaginable.
Back in 2018, Donald Trump brazenly jeered people of color and their “shit hole countries,” while simultaneously wishing for lily-white immigration from— Norway. Interesting. Most of the young working men and women who rose up against crushing income inequality in the bloody year of 1877 were white immigrants—many of them, in fact, from Scandinavia.
The horrific events of that awful year prove skin tone, age and gender actually mean nothing to the economic royalists that Trump and his ilk have always represented. At some point, anyone who messes with the robber barons’ money risks the same kind of savage dehumanization as the unfortunate “ragamuffins and “saloon bummers” who got what they deserved in 1877.
Bumping up the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour today would still mean low-wage earners taking home less than $31,200 before taxes. Still less if the boss chose to provide you with less than 40 hours of work. Who can live on that? How do you afford healthcare or save for retirement?
More than six years ago, Shaun Francois I, current head of the largest public employees union in New York City, lamented then Mayor Bill de Blasio’s incremental plan to bump up the minimum hourly pay for municipal employees to $15 an hour, calling it “bittersweet.”
“It’s not what I wanted,” Francois told me back then. “I really don’t think that $15 in 2018 is really going to make a difference.”
The Fight for $15 movement, although materially benefitting impoverished working people to some degree, was always a straw man campaign. The monied class huffed and stamped its feet as if it was a threat to their very existence, but it was all a lot of performative nonsense. Inadequate and insufficient from the get-go, the Fight for $15 campaign has done nothing to upend the depressing dynamic facing the working poor. Those who struggled to make ends meet before achieving a $15 an hour minimum wage are still struggling to make ends meet now.
And choosing to keep the federal minimum wage at $7.25 is some 1877-level of cruelty.
As Morris Pearl, chair of the Patriotic Millionaires and former managing director of Black Rock Inc., recently observed, “$7.25 was already inadequate back in 2009 when the minimum wage was last raised, but now it is downright deplorable.”
“Since 2009, workers have endured the Great Recession, a worldwide pandemic, historic inflation, and massive changes in the cost of living. And what have they gotten in return? A minimum wage that is worth 27% less than its 2009 value, one that now isn’t enough to afford even a single-bedroom apartment in 93% of the country,” Pearl continued.
This patriotic millionaire is urging President Joe Biden to step up and try and save the system from itself — kinda like the way FDR did back in the 1940s, only on far more modest scale — and raise the federal minimum wage to at least $15 an hour.
“The President is supposed to be the leader of our country – it’s time for Biden to lead on this critical issue,” Pearl said.
One-hundred-and-forty-five years ago, American workers who rose up together and demanded a living wage for themselves and their starving families were met with bullets. Does anyone think the same thing wouldn’t happen again today?