D.C. enacting $15 minimum wage indexed for inflation, in huge victory for labor rights

Washington, D.C. mayor signs a groundbreaking $15 minimum wage law as the Fight for 15 grassroots movement grows

By Ben Norton

Published June 28, 2016 10:00PM (EDT)

 (AP/Seth Wenig)
(AP/Seth Wenig)

The growing Fight for 15 movement had a huge victory this week.

Washington, D.C. passed legislation on Monday night that will increase the minimum wage to $15 by 2020 and index it for inflation.

Mayor Muriel Bowser signed The Fair Shot Minimum Wage Act in D.C.'s Columbia Heights neighborhood.

The current minimum wage in D.C. is $10.50 per hour, although it is slated to increase to $11.50 later this week, The Huffington Post reported. In 2017, it will be increased to $12.50.

D.C. is one of the most expensive cities in the U.S.

The new legislation will incrementally increase the minimum wage to $15 in 2020. The minimum wage for tipped workers will rise from $2.77 now to $5 per hour before tips, although employers must pay the difference if the worker does not make more than $15 per hour with tips.

In an even bigger victory for labor rights, the new law will also increase the minimum wage annually based on an inflation index, so the real wage of workers will not diminish over time.

In 2014, the D.C. council voted to permanently tie the minimum wage to inflation, in a decision that was applauded by unions and labor rights groups throughout the country.

Earlier this month, the D.C. council unanimously voted for the $15 minimum wage, although the measure was only just signed into law on June 27.

SEIU local 1199 called the wage boost "a huge victory for DC workers." It attributed the win to "the tireless fight waged by workers, activists and labor unions."

The Economic Policy Institute, a left-leaning think tank, estimates the new minimum wage will benefit 114,000 workers, roughly 14 percent of all D.C. workers and more than one-fifth of the district's private-sector workers.

"Far from the stereotype of low-wage workers being teenagers working to earn spending money," the Economic Policy Institute emphasized, "those who would benefit are overwhelmingly adult workers, most of whom come from families of modest means, and many of whom are supporting families of their own."

Kate Black, executive director of the women's rights advocacy group American Women, applauded the wage increase as "a welcome relief for the thousands of minimum-wage workers in the District."

She noted that the new increase will greatly help women. “Nationally, two-thirds of minimum-wage workers are women and more than half are 25 or older," Black stressed.

"The reality is that our workforce has changed, with women now making up nearly half of the labor force, and they are primary or co-breadwinners in two-thirds of American households," she continued.

The wage increase will also greatly benefit Americans of color, who are disproportionately employed in low-wage jobs.

Some of the U.S.'s biggest cities, including Los Angeles and San Francisco, have passed $15 minimum wage laws.

New York state and California will also be implementing $15 minimum wages in the next several years.

These victories have been the culmination of years of organizing by workers, labor unions and activists.

Seattle was the first major U.S. city to pass a $15 minimum wage, after a struggle launched by the group Socialist Alternative. Seattle City Councilmember Kshama Sawant, one of the only elected Marxists in the U.S., helped lead the campaign for a living wage.

Since then, the grassroots Fight for 15 movement has blossomed into a powerful national movement, with the active participation of thousands of low-wage workers.

The federal minimum wage is presently just $7.25 per hour.

Since 2013, 18 states and D.C., along with nearly 50 cities and counties, have raised the minimum wage, benefiting the lives of millions of American workers.

Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton has been ambiguous on the issue. She has called for a $12 federal minimum wage, although she says she supports a $15 minimum wage in certain states.

Her opponent, self-declared democratic socialist Bernie Sanders, called for a $15 federal minimum wage as a national standard that can be increased in more expensive states.

At a hearing of the Democratic National Committee's platform drafting committee on June 24, the representatives appointed by Clinton voted against a $15 minimum wage amendment that was supported by the representatives appointed by Sanders.

Clinton’s representatives argued the DNC platform already expresses support for a $15 minimum wage, but the language is weak and offers no specific mechanism for getting there. Sanders’ supporters, led by Rep. Keith Ellison, called for the explicit demand of an indexed $15 federal minimum wage to be written into the Democratic Party's platform. Clinton's surrogates opposed the measure.

Deborah Parker, a committee member appointed by Sanders, called the present federal minimum wage a “starvation wage” and emphasized that single parents cannot afford to work on the minimum wage and provide for their children.

Rep. Ellison stressed that, if the minimum wage in 1968 had been indexed for inflation, it would be at least $22 today.

“We are going through one of the worst periods of wage stagnation in our nation’s history,” he said. Ellison pointed out that Americans who are working full-time on the federal minimum wage are eligible for food stamps, section 8 housing and Medicaid.

“One of the problems in our economy, and the reason we’ve had slow growth, is because the average working American doesn’t have any money,” he continued. “You can’t spend money that you don’t have.”

Even small business owners are hurt by the low minimum wage, Ellison added, “because their customer base is broke.”

Ben Norton

Ben Norton is a politics reporter and staff writer at AlterNet. You can find him on Twitter at @BenjaminNorton.

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