Wage hike shows what’s possible when workers join together, think big

Working people celebrated at City Hall as Mayor Melvin Carter signed St. Paul’s new $15 minimum wage ordinance Nov. 14.

Six years ago, when fast food workers in New York and, later, cities across the country began striking and rallying in the streets for a $15 minimum wage, the idea was dismissed as too radical.

Today, it’s written into the City of St. Paul’s legislative code.

Members of the City Council voted unanimously Nov. 14 to phase in $15 for all workers – indexed to inflation – over the next nine years. Within minutes of the vote, Mayor Melvin Carter, who made $15 a rallying cry in his bid for office one year ago, had put his signature on the ordinance.

That set off a celebration like few others at City Hall, where many of the working people who led the fight for $15 had gathered to witness the historic moment.

Shalantra Taylor, who works at a McDonald’s in St. Paul and is looking for a second job to make ends meet, was among them. She thanked Carter and council members for “listening to workers, for standing with us.”

“I am homeless, and I’m not the only one,” Taylor said. “Many working people have to work multiple jobs and are still living paycheck to paycheck… This minimum wage law is going to lift up working people and address racial inequalities in our city.”

During a signing ceremony at City Hall, St. Paul Mayor Melvin Carter showed off the city’s new $15 minimum wage ordinance, which drew unanimous backing from members of the City Council.

Making history

Taylor and other workers never wavered in their demands, and they resisted efforts to divide them along the lines of age, experience or industry.

When the restaurant lobby pushed a subminimum wage for tipped workers, a coalition of worker, faith and community organizations pushed back – both in the streets and in formal meetings with elected officials. As a result, the so-called “tip adjustment” never even came up for a vote before the council, and it is not included in the new ordinance.

By the time the ordinance was introduced this fall, the 15 Now Coalition had gained the influence necessary to go toe-to-toe with powerful lobbying interests like the Minnesota Restaurant Association and big-box retailers. And it did so by fusing the energy of community members fighting entrenched poverty and racial disparities with the power of organized labor.

When those groups share a bold, progressive policy vision, labor historian Peter Rachleff said, it’s a recipe for making history.

“I think the fight for $15 nationally looks more like the fight for the eight-hour day and the fight against child labor than it looks like anything else in American history,” Rachleff, co-director of the East Side Freedom Library, said.

All three movements were initially derided as too ambitious.

“People said it’s too much too fast, but it’s that kind of evocative vision” that inspired the fight for child labor laws and the eight-hour day, Rachleff said. And it’s a similarly bold vision inspiring workers to fight for $15 today.

“We’re not talking about 2 percent a year or a $2 raise,” Rachleff said. “By putting $15 up the flagpole, people felt it was worth fighting for. People could imagine their lives being changed by making that kind of money.”

In 2017, fast food workers went on a Labor Day strike to launch the campaign for $15 in St. Paul.

Labor support ‘essential’

From the earliest stages of the Fight for $15, unions in the Twin Cities have recognized the importance of fighting alongside workers, whether union or non-union, pushing for a higher minimum wage.

Union members marched alongside striking fast food workers in the early days of the campaign, and many labor organizations, including the St. Paul Regional Labor Federation, helped make $15 a litmus test for candidates running for mayor in 2017.

“Raising the minimum wage, without a tip adjustment, was a fight our affiliate unions and delegates realized was essential to who we are,” St. Paul RLF President Bobby Kasper said. “The labor movement won’t remain relevant unless we’re fighting for all working people.”

After Carter announced plans to take on the issue in his first year in office, the St. Paul RLF began hosting weekly meetings with activists and organizers from the 15 Now coalition. Several union members sat on the study group whose recommendations formed the basis of the minimum wage ordinance.

Now that the ordinance has passed, the 15 Now coalition will focus on education and enforcement in St. Paul, with an eye on taking the movement statewide.

“It’s a really ambitious idea,” Rachleff said. “But the beauty of it is it will force people to do the kind of metro-outstate organizing we need so desperately, not just in Minnesota but also in Wisconsin and throughout the Midwest.

“Those conversations don’t happen if there isn’t a focal point.”

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