California: Minimum Wage Paradise

The largest American state, eighth-largest economy in the world, will institute a minimum hourly wage of $15 per hour.

Holly Dias was moved as she rested her shoulder on Jerry Brown, who took her in his arms. The Burger King employee and the governor of the most powerful state in the USA — good enough for a Hollywood romance, a popular local genre. Indeed, this embrace symbolizes the most social and political soap opera of the day, the battle for a minimum wage of $15 (13.40 euros) per hour.

On Easter Monday, Jerry Brown, the Democratic governor of California, announced that he would bring a measure to the state legislature that will raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour (compared to the current $10) — i.e., double the federal minimum wage ($7.25) — from now until 2022. Small businesses that have less than 25 employees will get two more years before they have to implement it, and, starting in 2024, the minimum wage will be inflation-indexed. California, the eighth-largest economy on the planet, will be home to the highest minimum wage in the world.

Six Million People Will Benefit from this Social Advancement

A third of California employees, approximately 6 million people, will benefit from this social advancement; among them, Holly Dias. Present during the press conference that was held by Jerry Brown to announce the agreement reached with unions, she declared, “I would like to thank all the workers who fought for themselves and their families by demanding a minimum wage of $15.” Everything indeed started with them: fast-food employees in a “bottom-up” model, as it is called across the Atlantic, meaning a grassroots campaign that starts at the bottom and has an impact on the top.

In November 2012, about 100 New York employees from that industry initiated a strike and quantified their request: $15 an hour. Barack Obama had just won the presidential election, but the Republicans had succeeded in keeping the majority in the House of Representatives. A few weeks later, the former called on the latter to give a small boost to the threadbare federal minimum wage ($7.25). It was no shock that the noninterventionist advocates responded with inaction.

For workers, who are often poor, the response could only have come from the bottom: City after city, the “fight for 15” opened up sections, received support from traditional unions, and put pressure on elected officials. In Seattle, they made an interesting acquaintance: Kshama Sawant, a socialist candidate for the city council who is a Trotskyist and is basing her entire campaign on this very issue. To everyone’s surprise, she was elected on Nov. 5, 2013, against the outgoing Democrat. Into the muffled shell that is the Municipal General Assembly, she allowed the voices of Julia, Terran, Sam, Hana and Iesha, who turned off their grills and fryers to demand a decent wage. The campaign was orchestrated by Service Employees International Union 775. Among the ranks: David Rolf, who, in 1998, organized the unionization of 74,000 people in the health care industry in Los Angeles, the biggest membership campaign since the unionization of the Ford River Rouge plant in 1938. The political campaign and energetic social movement led by underpaid, nonunionized employees turned out to be a winning combination. A few months later, a minimum wage of $15 was implemented by elected officials. It became the law for all workers in one of the main cities on the West Coast.

For union official David Rolf, who was interviewed by l’Humanité in October 2014, “by massively re-launching the demand for adopting a minimum wage of $15, we are giving an alternative to the ‘trickle-down’ effect, the supply theory, which supposes that the more money there is at the top, the more it will trickle down to the bottom. This is a concrete response to deepening inequalities. A response that was built by cities and states when facing the machine in Washington.” Also for l’Humanité, Kshama Sawant drew political lessons from it: “It’s a starting point. First, it’s an opening for a realistic left that no longer wants to fall for the-lesser-of-two-evils trick with the Democrats. Then, the debate on the $15 allowed us to change the nature of political debate in this city, where elected officials, who are all Democrats, were sensitive to arguments from the business world.” It’s actually in the entire country that the nature of political debate has changed. In the epicenter that is Seattle, the battle for a decent salary is propagating. At the end of 2014, it was San Francisco that adopted it by referendum. Then New York applied it for its fast-food workers; then Los Angeles; and now, California. Who will it be tomorrow?

Since the beginning of the primary campaign, Bernie Sanders has made the $15 minimum wage a focal point of his “political revolution.” Hillary Clinton found the amount too high, too unrealistic, and suggested $12 (10.7 euros). Yet, The New York Times had called on her to align with Sanders’ position, which the large daily paper determined to be the most direct in fighting inequalities. Yesterday, via a tweet, the Democratic candidate [Hillary Clinton] saluted a “great victory” and “clapped.” Bernie Sanders immediately retorted, “I propose a $15 minimum wage. Not Hillary Clinton.” On June 7, the two Democratic candidates will go toe to toe … in California.

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