On a $15 Minimum Wage, Democrats Are Shooting Themselves in the Foot — Again

Pushing through a $15 minimum wage wouldn’t just be an economic gift to workers — it would be a political gift from the Democrats to themselves. Inaction, on the other hand, would hand a historic favor to the far right. Biden is committing a huge blunder by wavering.

Protesters with Fight for $15 gather in front of a McDonalds to rally against fast food executive Andrew Puzder on February 13, 2017 in New York City. (Spencer Platt / Getty Images)

The Biden administration is indicating it won’t play hardball to raise the minimum wage to $15. But despite significant setbacks, Bernie Sanders and progressive Democrats in Congress like Pramila Jayapal (D-WA) are still pushing for the measure to be included in the current coronavirus relief package. If they succeed, the policy will improve millions of people’s lives. It will also be a political gift to Joe Biden and the Democratic Party.

Last night, the Senate parliamentarian Elizabeth MacDonough ruled against the inclusion of the $15 wage hike in the package. It’s a procedural issue: she says the measure falls afoul of rules governing the budget reconciliation process which allows legislation to pass by 51 votes rather than the usual 60. (Raising the minimum wage has almost no Republican support, hence the urgency to push it through as part of the budget, with only Democratic votes.) As my Jacobin colleagues Andrew Perez and David Sirota have argued, Kamala Harris can and should use her authority as president of the Senate now to overrule MacDonough.

Even if this procedural problem can be resolved by Harris’s intervention, Biden is apparently also daunted by the opposition of conservative Democrats Joe Manchin (D-WV) and Kyrsten Sinema (D-AZ). In response to Manchin’s scroogey counteroffer to raise the minimum wage to $11 — since then, Tom Cotton and Mitt Romney have offered the even less livable alternative of $10 — Sanders told reporters this week, “We have tens of millions of workers working for starvation wages. It is an absolute national disgrace. Fifteen dollars is not a radical idea.”

Bernie was right, both on the justice and the politics.

The demand for $15 an hour has, over the years, moved from an aggressive, maximalist left-labor idea to a mainstream centrist one, which now seems palatable (or inevitable) even to many low-wage employers like Amazon, which has been lobbying and running ads promoting it. This is partly because of Fight for $15 organizing, which has enjoyed many state and local victories ever since late 2012, when fast food workers gave the demand prominence with a national walkout (socialist Kshama Sawant ran for Seattle City Council on the issue the following year and won, lending more momentum to the movement). Sanders’s two presidential campaigns, which consistently emphasized the $15 wage, also helped. There’s also this sad fact: $15 is less than it was when the demand first emerged and is expected to decline even more over the next few years. Since the federal proposal phases it in gradually, by the time most workers get it in 2025, $15 an hour will be worth around 20 percent less than it was in 2012.

Still, according to the Congressional Budget Office (CBO), raising the minimum wage to $15 would help some seventeen million workers who make less than that right now, and would likely also boost pay for another ten million who currently earn slightly more than that. It would reduce the number of Americans living in poverty by nine hundred thousand. While the CBO has also predicted some job loss, that consequence has been disputed by many reputable economists and debunked in numerous studies.

Biden still has the option of trying to court Manchin, a notoriously peevishly right-wing Democrat, with special stimulus for his home state of West Virginia, which badly needs help making the transition out of a coal-based economy. Biden will need Manchin’s support later for measures to end our suicidal dependence on fossil fuels — why not start now by plying his state with favors in exchange for cooperation? By lavishing this impoverished state with federal assistance, Biden could help its working-class and poor populations, while also putting the Democrats on stronger electoral footing there. Biden is a smart enough politician to have already thought of this idea — which was after all explored at length in the New York Times — but he apparently needs pressure to do it.

Granted, the huge package of legislation that the Biden administration and Congress are negotiating is not an austerity budget, a fact Americans can thank the Left as well as the extremity of our historic moment for. Americans need the rest of the measures — funding for vaccines, the aid to state and local governments for schools and other public services, child tax credits — just as badly and as urgently as the wage hike. But all of this is an argument for acting quickly on the $15, not for ditching it.

If the $15 raise passes, millions of Americans, finding their circumstances improved, will suddenly have a reason to vote for Democrats in the next election. And the working poor are not the only voters who would approve: the $15 minimum wage is more popular than either party. Some 60 percent of Americans favor it, making it far more popular than Biden himself, who won just 51 percent of votes cast in the 2020 election. In Florida, often a key swing state, a measure to raise the minimum wage to $15 passed, while Biden lost.

The ball is now in the court of Kamala Harris and the White House. Will they act?