Beyond $15 An Hour?
The recent announcement that Amazon would raise its minimum wage to $15 an hour received predictable praise. Sen. Bernie Sanders, who had often excoriated Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, commended America’s wealthiest man for bowing under pressure from activists who long targeted the company for its exploitative labor practices.
With a valuation now more than double Walmart’s, Amazon is likely to be a corporate trendsetter — and this is huge news for the Fight for $15 movement, a national campaign launched in 2012 that has pressured businesses to raise the wage floor.
Minimum wages across America are going up. In New York City, for instance, the minimum wage will reach $15 an hour by year’s end. Just a few years ago, such a figure seemed farfetched. When Democrats warred for the nomination in the city’s mayoral race in 2013, the highest hike anyone would support was to $11.50.
We’ve come far. But as corporations begin to give in to Fight for $15’s demands and more states and municipalities slide their wages upward, it’s important to remember there’s much more to do to halt the exploitation of American workers.
To its credit, Fight for $15 realizes this. “For us, the fight for $15 has always been the fight for $15 and a union,” said Allynn Umel, the organizing director of Fight for $15. “How do we put that union demand front and center?”
For behemoths like Amazon, raising the wage is an easy concession that is worth the rosy P.R. for whatever rounding-error hit it takes in earnings. Workers earn slightly more, progressives celebrate and everyone, seemingly, can walk away satisfied.
But Amazon and most large corporations in America remain virulently anti-union. With a President in Donald Trump who empowers union-busting oligarchs like the Koch brothers, and right-wing legislators committed to watering down workers’ rights, the road to real empowerment remains arduous.
As recently as September, a leaked 45-minute video revealed how Amazon trains workers to resist union organizing efforts. Bezos likely fears a unionized workforce because their demands would transcend a better wage: They would get to the heart of the American worker’s plight, which is a profound lack of benefits.
One irony of the $15 wage is how the full-time worker, who would earn a little over $30,000 a year (think about how far that would go in Manhattan), is no longer eligible for Medicaid. A single-payer health care system where everyone is covered or a bolstered Affordable Care Act that included a public option could rectify this problem.
But America’s failed health-care system punishes the vast lower middle class, which cannot qualify for Medicaid, isn’t old enough to access Medicare, and doesn’t work at a job that provides benefits. Obamacare, which Trump has repeatedly tried to sabotage, fills gaps more than the prior system did, but still provides coverage that is far too expensive for many American workers and families.
Umel said the Fight for $15 will be focusing on changing labor laws to make them friendlier to workers, including increasing penalties for employers that fire workers illegally for organizing.
Corporations everywhere must be put on notice that raising the wage a few bucks is not enough. With a Medicare for All future many years away — Democrats will need the White House and full control of Congress to even begin to make it a reality — it will be up to the few corporations employing a large number of American workers to ensure their employees are living lives with dignity.
This means real health care benefits, a pension, paid sick days and paid vacation days on par with what workers earn in other industrialized nations. Hardly any of which can happen without stronger unions.
Ross Barkan is a political reporter and former candidate for state Senate.
Co-published with NY Daily News.