Fight for $15 Movement Confronts The Presidential Candidates

Isaiah J. Poole

Thursday night is a big night for both political parties in New York City, with the Democratic presidential candidates staging a presidential debate in Brooklyn and the Republican candidates appearing at a black-tie fundraiser at the New York Hilton.

But before they get to their big nights, the candidates will have to get through the big day planned by the Fight for $15 movement, which is staging major demonstrations and strikes in New York, Washington and hundreds of other cities around the country.

In Manhattan, marchers started gathering Thursday morning at the Times Square McDonald’s and planned a “die-in” at a McDonald’s in Brooklyn. The protests are expected to culminate in an afternoon march that would end at the Grand Hyatt Hotel, where all three of the major Republican candidates are scheduled to appear.

In Washington, a “massive strike” was scheduled at the U.S. Department of Labor, where the demand is for presidential candidates to pledge to issue a “model employer” executive order – also knows as the $15 and a union executive order” – if they enter the White House. So far, one of the presidential candidates – Democratic candidate Bernie Sanders – has agreed to the pledge. The other Democrat in the race, Hillary Clinton, has not.

The Huffington Post reported Wednesday that the Congressional Progressive Caucus’ leadership PAC, the Progressive Action PAC, secured the commitment from Sanders in response to a letter addressed to all of the presidential candidates.

The Huffington Post quotes Warren Gunnels, spokesperson for the Sanders campaign, as saying, “Yes, Senator Sanders is proud to commit to this … As president, Sen. Sanders looks forward to working with the Progressive Caucus to make this executive order a reality.”

The website also says that the Clinton campaign demurred.

“Hillary Clinton strongly shares the goal of using the tools the federal government has to encourage employers to take the high road — paying good wages, offering good benefits, and sharing profits with their workers,” said Ian Sams, a Clinton spokesperson. “She has put forward a range of policies in this campaign, from strengthening overtime rules to raising the minimum wage to tax relief for profit sharing, that would do so. She will work closely with leaders of the Congressional Progressive Caucus — who have fought alongside President Obama to protect American workers — to move forward on ideas like these as President.”

It is well known that Clinton has reservations about jumping on the $15 an hour bandwagon, even though that bandwagon is moving quickly past her – even in her adopted home state of New York. New York City’s mayor Bill de Blasio had already initiated a plan to move city fast-food workers and workers paid by the city toward a $15-an-hour wage, and Gov. Andrew Cuomo later orchestrated his own deal to move the entire state toward $15 an hour over a five-year period.

But Clinton’s reticence to embrace a $15-an-hour nationwide standard – even in the form of the cautious incrementalism embraced by both New York and California – is nothing compared to the outright hostility to the Republican side. Recall that in a Fox Business News debate in November, while Fight for $15 protestors were outside the Milwaukee theater where the debate was being held, Donald Trump complained, “Our taxes are too high… wages too high … I hate to say it, but we have to leave it the way it is … People have to go out, they have to work really hard” to get “into that upper stratum.”

Ted Cruz has also been a hard-line opponent of an increase in the minimum wage, voting against a proposed increase in the Senate in 2014 and on the campaign trail justifying his opposition by saying that a minimum wage increase would hurt “the most vulnerable.” He holds that view even though dozens of impartial studies of minimum wage increases over the years show no evidence that the increases have had a discernible effect on the availability of low-wage jobs. Plus, the moves toward a $15-an-hour wage in New York and California are being done gradually, giving ample time for employers to adjust.

After all, employees have had to adjust for the better part of 30 years to a world in which they did not get the same share of productivity gains that they received before the 1980s. They have had to adjust to receiving a declining share of corporate profits: The Economic Policy Institute recently found that if workers received the same percentage of corporate income in 2015 that they did in 2000, workers would have an additional $535 billion in their paychecks.

The Fight for $15 demonstrations Thursday are a call for restoring balance and restoring fairness to workers. The next president could make the first step by declaring that all workers for businesses and organizations receiving the $1 trillion the federal government spends on contracts, loans and grants each year must be paid a living wage, have a basic benefits package, and be afforded the right to be able to collectively bargain with their employer. That step would build on the powerful momentum built by the Fight for $15 movement in Seattle, California, New York and elsewhere.

The fact that Sanders has immediately embraced this executive order raises a fundamental question for Clinton: Does she really want to be on the wrong side of an issue that is a defining economic justice standard for the workers she needs to win the White House?

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