The "Fight for $15" in Massachusetts is just $4 short from the $15 an hour labor activists have been fighting for. $4 dollars from the raise to $11 low-wage workers in the state got on Jan. 1. The recent bump was the last of the incremental increases approved by the legislature three years ago. Massachusetts—along with Washington state—now pays the highest state minimum wage in the country.
Meanwhile, most of America’s 4 million low-wage workers still earn the $7.25 mandated by the federal government. Actually the Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that more hourly workers earn below the minimum wage due to restaurant workers, and others who work for tips. But also the percentage of minimum wage workers is down—year over year—and significantly from 1979, when records began to be tracked.
President Franklin Delano Roosevelt considered the establishment of a minimum wage second only to the creation of Social Security in his New Deal. The concept was supposed to protect workers from employer abuse, and be a hedge against poverty. But inflation has shrunk earnings,as did the Great Recession and the resulting wage stagnation. And now even full-time workers earning the minimum wage fall below the poverty line.
Just four years ago the Fight for $15 union movement was considered a long shot at best.
The group’s website notes, “When we first took the streets, the skeptics called us dreamers—said a $15 wage was unwinnable. We didn’t listen.”
Protests that started in New York with McDonald’s fast food workers have spread across the country and includes airport baggage handlers, hospital orderlies, and low-wage workers in a host of other jobs in service and hospitality. Along the way, Fight for $15 activists helped convince lawmakers in 20 states to raise their minimum wage. In Massachusetts, the local advocacy group Raise Up Massachusetts was instrumental in shaping the legislation for the graduated increase here.
There’s no question that higher minimum wage offers financial relief for low-wage workers. But there isn’t agreement about the long-term impact on the economy. Workers have more money to spend, but in expensive states like Massachusetts, is it a wash? The Co-Founder of Cambridge Naturals says higher entry-level wages are better for everybody. Michael Kantor recently raised the starting wage in his Cambridge-based retail store to $15 saying, “It will not only improve employees’ standard of living, but strengthen Massachusetts business climate and local communities.”
But other Massachusetts employers warn there will be a price to pay for the higher minimum. Some say they may leave the state, others have cut staff, and most say the increase forces them to raise the salaries of other workers. They also point to the increased cost of time and a half for Sundays and holidays required by Massachusetts Blue Laws. Where $7 an hour became $10, $11 becomes $16.
No question that’s real money, but I wonder if some of the employers doth protest too much. The recent report from the Associate Industries of Massachusetts Business Confidence Index confirms hiring is up 37 percent. Less than 10 percent of companies are planning to downsize. That, coupled with an all-time low Massachusetts unemployment rate, should take the sting out of any potential hit on business bottom lines—and we consumers who believe raising the minimum wage is the fair thing to do should be prepared to pay higher prices for some goods and services.
Raise Up Massachusetts is now drafting legislation to push for $15 an hour, which is closer to an actual living wage. A minimum wage may not guarantee an equal piece of the New Deal American pie, but it’s better than crumbs from the table.