“July 29, 2013 Protestor” by Annette Bernhardt | CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons

5 Things Every Politico Should Know About the Fight for $15

Underpaid workers in the “Fight for $15” entered the political arena today when they vowed to take their fight for a $15 an hour and union rights to the ballot box in 2016. And politicians should take note. An examination of public opinion, emerging ballot initiatives and growing support at every level for the Fight for $15 suggests that low-wage workers are developing into a powerful voting bloc — one that political hopefuls, regardless of party affiliation, ignore at their peril.

Below are the top five things that presidential contenders and anyone else should understand about how the Fight for $15 is likely to shape next year’s election:

1. Polling shows that $15 and a union are voting issues for America’s workers

The 42 percent of U.S. workers making less than $15 per hour overwhelmingly support (by a three-to-one margin) a $15 minimum wage and a union, according to an October 2015 poll. But even more significant as we head into 2016, 65 percent of registered low-income voters say they are more likely to vote in the presidential election if one or more of the candidates publicly supports these goals. And nearly seven in ten unregistered low-income voters would register to vote for a candidate actively supporting this platform.

2. $15 wage increases are jumping to the state level and are likely to figure prominently in the 2016 election

The $15 minimum wage went from rallying cry to reality during 2014 and 2015, with major cities from Seattle to Los Angeles inking deals for wages at that level, and New York becoming the first state to order a wage increase to $15 for fast-food workers statewide. As momentum for $15 continues to grow, it is certain to be a major issue in the fall elections. In a growing number of states and cities, including California and the District of Columbia, voter initiatives for $15 wages will likely appear on the November ballot. In New York, Governor Andrew Cuomo is campaigning for the Republican-controlled state senate to approve a $15 minimum wage. If they balk, the issue will figure prominently in the November election as they struggle to maintain their slim majority. And ballot initiatives for significant minimum wage increases shy of $15 appear headed to the ballot in Maine, Ohio and Oregon — with more states likely to follow. Altogether, these measures will give at least 19 million registered voters a chance to vote themselves a raise and likely motivating disengaged low-income voters to head to the polls on Election Day — and allow voters everywhere to vote out opponents of decent wages.

3. Calls are growing for federal action to raise wages to $15

With public opinion and workers strongly backing $15 wages, earlier this year Senator Bernie Sanders and Representative Keith Ellison introduced a federal $15 minimum wage bill that would phase in the higher wage in five steps by 2020, index it to the median wage, and gradually eliminate the sub-minimum tipped wage, which currently stands at a paltry $2.13 per hour. They have now been joined by a growing roster of congressional progressives, including Senators Elizabeth Warren, Kirsten Gillibrand, Sherrod Brown and Ed Markey, more than 40 House members including Nancy Pelosi, candidates for Congress, and more than 200 economists.

While Hillary Clinton is not yet backing the $15 federal bill, she has thrown her support behind the Fight for $15 movement, telling a crowd in Detroit, “All of you should not have to march in the streets to get a living wage, but thank you for marching in the streets to get that living wage…. We need you out there leading the fight against those who would rip away Americans’ right to organize, to collective bargaining, to fair pay.”

But with Congress gridlocked, executive action is the most realistic short-term avenue for promoting $15 wages at the federal level. That’s why the Good Jobs Nation campaign is calling on President Obama — and candidates who may succeed him — to pledge to issue an executive order giving priority in the federal contracting process to companies that pay at least $15 per hour.

4. Workers just about everywhere in America need $15 or more just to pay the bills

Critics of the Fight for $15, like Dunkin’ Donuts CEO Nigel Travis, have called the notion of a $15 minimum wage “outrageous.” But actual cost-of-living data make clear that just about everywhere in America, a single worker needs to earn about $15 per hour just to pay the bills — and workers supporting children and those in higher-cost regions need much more. An October 2015 analysis by the Alliance for a Just Society shows that single adults, on average, need to earn $16.84 today just to cover basic living costs. Parents raising children need much higher hourly wages — as high as $43.30 for single parents raising two children. Even in low-cost states like Arkansas, Kentucky, Mississippi and West Virginia, the wage needed for single adults does not fall below $14.26 — and will reach $15 everywhere by 2020.

5. Growing numbers of employers are not waiting and are raising wages to $15 or more

Rather than a race to the bottom, more and more employers are raising their pay scales to $15 or more — and talking about the competitive advantage that a stable, better paid workforce offers their companies and the national economy. After raising his company’s base pay to $16, Mark T. Bertolini, CEO of insurance giant Aetna, explained to CNBC, “We’ve sort of destroyed business after business in this country by looking at spreadsheets with numbers we call truth…. Instead, let’s look at the potential benefits we could derive, hard and soft, as a result of this investment.” Other employers have followed Aetna’s lead, including private sector businesses such as Amalgamated Bank, Nationwide Mutual Insurance, Facebook and Google, and academic institutions including the University of California, Duquesne University, and the University of Rochester.