Rev. William J. Barber II: Democrats who dumped the $15 wage must be held accountable

"We did not vote for 'normalcy,'" says founder of the Poor People's Campaign. "We can't wait another 400 years"

Published March 8, 2021 6:00AM (EST)

Reverend William Barber II (JOSH EDELSON/AFP via Getty Images)
Reverend William Barber II (JOSH EDELSON/AFP via Getty Images)

Over the week it took the U.S. Senate to deliberate on President Biden's $1.9 trillion American Recovery Plan — and to vote down raising the Federal minimum wage from its $7.25 poverty level to $15 an hour — close to 13,000 Americans died from COVID. 

No one knows how many of those 13,000 deaths were of low-wage essential workers or of their family members infected because that worker brought the highly contagious virus home with them. What we do know is that the number of COVID deaths are disproportionately high among people of color, who make up a major percentage of the workforce that doesn't have the luxury of working remotely. 

We know that 530,000 of us have died, but as with the U.S. Postal Service, employers are reluctant to publicly disclose their body count for fear of incurring liability. Close to 30 million have been infected, with as many as one third of those survivors experiencing lingering symptoms of varying severity that could lead to permanent disability.

It's estimated that between 27 million and 32 million Americans would have benefited from the raise to the federal minimum wage, which sets a floor for most, but certainly not all, workers nickel-and-dimed in a gig economy, where basic benefits like workers compensation, disability or even unemployment insurance are far from guaranteed while billionaires reap ever-growing profits. 

Early on in the pandemic, House and Senate Democrats talked about hazard pay for essential workers. That never materialized even as Republican governors in states like Texas and Florida refused to impose the most basic public health precautions, such as wearing masks which certainly put essential workers in their states at greater risk of getting infected and dying.

Not only did hazard pay never materialize, but the $15 minimum wage was voted down by every Republican senator and eight Democrats: Tom Carper and Chris Coons of Delaware, Maggie Hassan and Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire, Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, Jon Tester of Montana and the "moderate" ringleader, Joe Manchin of West Virginia, along with Angus King of Maine, an independent who caucuses with the Democrats. 

After the Senate vote on March 6, President Biden took a victory lap with a short speech from the White House which extolled the virtues of his plan and assured reporters that the bill that emerged from the Senate, without the $15 wage provision was "essentially about the same."

"Over 85 percent of American households will get direct payments of $1,400 per person," Biden said. "For a typical middle-class family of four — husband and wife working, making $100,000 a year total, with three kids — they'll get $5,600 — I mean, with two kids — will get $5,600, and it'll be on the way soon."

Yet that pandemic relief, no matter how generous, is just not the same thing as the lifetime boost in weekly earnings that would have uplifted tens of millions of workers, an issue on which Biden and Kamala Harris enthusiastically campaigned last year. Throughout the campaign, and particularly in states like Georgia, Democrats aligned themselves with the Rev. Dr. William J. Barber II's Moral Monday movement and the current iteration of Martin Luther King Jr.'s Poor People's Campaign. 

Perhaps Biden didn't perceive the jettisoning of the $15 minimum wage as a loss because he had already given up on it before the Senate took up ARP.

"I respect and love President Biden and I preached at his inaugural ceremony, but it was wrong a few weeks ago for him to say he didn't think [the minimum wage] was going to make it into the bill," said Dr. Barber during a phone interview.

"He's the president just like Franklin Delano Roosevelt was, who used his bully pulpit and said in the middle of the Great Depression that any business that did not want to pay a living wage did not deserve to be a business in America. Well, poor and low-wealth people have been in a depression because we know that right now, as you and I are speaking, there are 62 million poor and low wealth workers in this country."

Barber likened the Senate to a "House of Lords" disconnected from the daily experiences of the tens of millions of poor and low wealth Americans. "It took Black people 400 years to get to $7.25 — we can't wait another 400 years," he said. "What they are doing should embolden us and intensify the agitation. If we challenged Trump for using power in the wrong way, then we have to challenge our own 'friends,' the people we voted for. We did not vote for 'normalcy.' We did not vote for the same.

"We voted for folks because they said, 'Elect me and I am going to deal with systemic racism and I am going to pass a living wage of $15 an hour,' which is a compromise in and of itself. We have to hold people to what they said."

According to Barber, 55 percent of poor and low-wealth voters cast their ballot for the Biden/Harris ticket. "We found that poor and low-wealth people make up a third of the electorate. That's 65 million voters, and 35 million voted this time — 6 million more than in 2016 … So that's the only place you can expand the electorate." 

As Barber sees it, the abandonment of the $15 minimum by centrist Democrats doesn't just reinforce systemic economic racism, it's political science malpractice. 

In August 2020 the Poor People's Campaign and Columbia University researchers released a report entitled "Unleashing the Power of Poor and Low Wealth Voters," which found that in 15 states, including several in the South, getting just 22 percent of poor and low-wealth voters who have not voted before to cast a ballot could be determinative in which party prevailed. 

If Democrats fail to deliver on the $15 minimum wage as they promised, Barber warns, they could suffer the same fate in next year's midterm elections that Democrats did in 2016, when a marked decline in African American voter turnout sank Hillary Clinton's campaign and handed Trump the Oval Office. 

Meanwhile the news media narrative heralds the imminent return to normal as the day in, day out death toll has become like the background noise at the top and bottom of the hour that includes the weather and stock quotes.

For Rev. Barber, that return to a pre-COVID "normal" that so many crave is a "sign of a kind of spiraling spiritual death" and a willful blindness to the 250,000 poor and low-wealth people that were dying every year due to inadequate or nonexistent health care, even before the pandemic. "We had seven people die from vaping and we had the White House and Congress convening hearings," he said, "while with 750 people dying from poverty and low wealth every day [pre-COVID] you still couldn't get a politician to talk about poverty consistently. Now that death rate has accelerated."

Democrats consistently pay lip service to the systemic racism that's been laid bare by the pandemic, which includes the increasing precarity of so much of the essential workforce, well before COVID came calling. The speed with which they dropped the provision for a $15 an hour minimum wage shows how disconnected they remain with the tens of millions of poor and low-wealth workers that both parties have ignored for generations — and how beholden they are to big corporations. 

So far, our nation is four for four in failing to address the living economic legacy of slavery, a through-line from Jim Crow right on through the poverty wages paid to this very day for essential services in the face-to-face work world where millions of people of color work. This 21st-century Grapes of Wrath-class of worker, of course, includes millions of poor whites as well, particularly in the South and rural Midwest, along with immigrants of all races in all 50 states.

There was the reversal of Reconstruction after the Civil War, when the North let the South rise again through draconian segregation, lynching and total voter suppression. Then FDR allowed Southern Democrats to maintain their economically oppressive apartheid by exempting agricultural workers and domestic workers from the landmark 1938 Fair Labor Standards Act and the minimum wage, which lifted so many out of poverty but left so many behind.

In our time there was the Bush and Obama response to the Wall Street heist of the American economy, which bailed out vulture capitalists at the expense of millions of homeowners who lost their homes on Main Street and MLK Boulevard, leading to a loss of household wealth for African Americans of generational consequence. 

And now we have the $1.9 trillion American Recovery Plan, which spends vast amounts of borrowed money to be paid off by taxpayers — and ensures that corporations can continue amassing huge profits while denying tens of millions a living wage. 

"Low wages hurt all workers and are particularly harmful to Black workers and other workers of color, especially women of color who make up a disproportionate share of workers who are severely underpaid," reports an Economic Policy Institute fact sheet on the minimum wage. "This is the result of structural racism and sexism, with an economic system rooted in chattel slavery in which workers of color — and especially women of color — have been and continue to be shunted into the most underpaid jobs."

A bipartisan coalition in the U.S. Senate just voted to keep it that way.

By Bob Hennelly

Bob Hennelly has written and reported for the Village Voice, Pacifica Radio, WNYC, CBS MoneyWatch and other outlets. His book, "Stuck Nation: Can the United States Change Course on Our History of Choosing Profits Over People?" was published in 2021 by Democracy@Work. He is now a reporter for the Chief-Leader, covering public unions and the civil service in New York City. Follow him on Twitter: @stucknation

MORE FROM Bob Hennelly