A Bold Shift in America’s Minimum Wage Debate

Minimum wage: Our leaders in Washington finally take action!

At last, our political leaders in Washington are taking action for low-wage workers and the middle class, striking a bold blow for America’s historic values of economic fairness and common good.

Gosh, I hope you don’t think I meant Washington, D.C.! No, no — the same old corporate mentality of stiffing workers and stripping any semblance of ethics from the work ethic still rules in that plutocratic roost.

Rather than Washington, D.C., it’s Washington state I’m talking about, specifically the progressive forces of Seattle who’ve just produced a landmark $15-an-hour minimum wage. Instead of just talking about the widening gap of inequality and wishing our do-nothing Congress might give a damn about the millions of hard-working Americans being knocked down, the good people of Seattle are providing some much-needed national leadership.

“We did it — workers did this,” said Kshama Sawant. She has been a leader of Occupy Seattle, and then became the tenacious, articulate leader of a large grassroots coalition of low-wage workers called “15 Now.” Last year, Sawant was elected to the City Council by putting the case for the $15 minimum wage floor directly to the voters.

In addition, Mayor Ed Murray campaigned last year for raising the minimum wage to $15 — indexed to inflation. Having won, he pulled together a 24-member working group of both labor and business interests this year, and they spent the last four months working together to hammer out details of the local ordinance. On June 2, all nine city council members voted unanimously to adopt it.

Achieving this was not exactly a breeze, for the forces of corporate avarice always pull out all the stops to defeat any move to improve the lot of ordinary working families. When it comes to raising the minimum wage to at least a bare level of human decency, pulling out all the stops invariably includes corporate PR deceptions, such as pretending that helping workers would put an intolerable squeeze on little mom-and-pop stores.

But wait — who are those large guys looming in the shadows, back behind mom and pop, carefully guarding the cash register?

Why, they’re multibillion-dollar, brand-name chains. These corporate behemoths — not mom and pop — are the chief exploiters of millions of low-wage American workers. They’re rank profiteers, constantly lobbying in Congress, states and cities to hold down wages, benefits and hope — even as they wallow in record profits and shell out exorbitant, multimillion-dollar paychecks to their top executives.

Sure enough, when the people of Seattle agreed to raise the minimum wage in their fair city to $15 an hour, an outfit called the International Franchise Association wept crocodile tears for local small business owners, pledging to unleash a pack of lawyers to sue the city, hoping a federal judge will nullify the will of local voters and overturn the “unfair” wage law. Don’t look now, but IAF is not local and does not represent mom and pop. It’s a Washington, D.C., lobbying consortium made up of franchised corporate chains intent on keeping America’s wage floor beneath the poverty level.

The chairman of IAF’s executive committee is a McDonald’s executive. Its board of directors sparkles with a who’s who of super-wealthy corporations, including Coca Cola, Marriott Hotels, Dunkin Donuts, Pepsi Food Services, Taco Bell and just about every other fast-food chain you can think of. Excuse me if I don’t weep over the “tragedy” of them finally being made to pay honest wages.

While our thoroughly corporatized Congress continues to side with such low-wage exploiters, cities and states across the country are standing up for America’s workaday majority and the common good. Paying a fair wage is not a matter of corporate accounting, but a measure of our wealthy society’s moral character. The political fight is far from over, but the good people of Seattle have done all of us a big favor by moving the wage debate from the miserly, self-centered turf of the corporate bottom line to the moral high ground of social justice, where it really belongs. Seattle is just the start of this movement, so let’s keep it going.

For more information on the spreading $15-an-hour minimum wage movement, visit www.15now.org.

Jim Hightower