As leaders of America’s two largest cities move forward on roughly doubling wage rates for certain service workers, it’s clear the momentum to raise wages for working people is growing.
That’s good news not just for New Yorkers and Los Angelenos now making less than $15 an hour. It is good news for all working people—many still struggling even as our economy overall is booming again.
New York City’s mayor just took action to move an estimated 18,000 fast-food workers, retail clerks and other working people to $15 an hour within five years. Mayor Bill DeBlasio’s executive order requires an increasingly better pay level from employers in commercial buildings that receive city funding.
In Los Angeles, the City Council just voted to require large hotels to pay up to 13,500 housekeepers, banquet servers and other staff a minimum of $15.37 an hour—one of the highest minimum wage rates in the country. On Tuesday the L.A. council introduced a new measure to raise the minimum wage to $15.25 an hour by five years from now, which parallels one introduced by Mayor Eric Garcetti that would raise it to $13.25 over two years. These measures would impact hundreds of thousands in a city with the highest poverty rate anywhere.
These improvements for people who work for L.A.’s private sector employers come on the heels of a public sector agreement between the L.A. Unified School District and SEIU members who are service workers in local schools. They’ll now be paid at least $15 an hour.
Public officials such as L.A. Schools Superintendent John Deasy are leading by example on the issue. He said it is “philosophically easy” to back higher wages since many students have parents who work for the school district. Low wages and economic instability at home often mean students struggle to learn.
While a good education lifts youth out of poverty every day, it makes no sense for their parents to remain in poverty, Deasy and school board members reasoned. SEIU Local 99 members who get kids to field trips safely and make sure their grades get out on time will now be able to spend evenings with their own children instead of working a second or third job.
Since the L.A. school district is the second largest in the nation, 20,000 people ranging from cafeteria workers to custodians will be impacted. That impact is second only to Seattle’s new $15 an hour minimum wage, which by 2017 will increase pay for 100,000 people working everywhere from a McDonald’ franchise to corporate headquarters. On Monday, King County officials passed a “living wage” law that sets the minimum wage – for a wide area including Seattle – at the same rate as in the city itself.
These victories show that when working people and our community partners unite, we have the strength in numbers to win improvements for not only individual employees but whole families and our economy. After all, service sector jobs—cooking, cleaning and caring for our children or parents— are the largest and fastest-growing segment of our economy.
And many people who work in this sector are women, people of color, immigrants. Making sure that their jobs are good jobs will give millions more among us the opportunity to live a decent life, no matter where we were born or in what ZIP code we live.
When working people have more money in our pockets, we spend locally on what may seem like just the basics—healthy groceries, a trip to the hardware store or a salon, maybe even a family vacation. That boosts our economy. But too many people still have to choose between paying rent and buying milk or needed asthma medication.
It’s time for big employers ranging from Wal-Mart to state and local governments to listen to their employees, pay them $15 an hour, and respect their freedom to form a union without retaliation. Thanks to union negotiations, home care providers in Washington this year won a first in the nation—modest retirement plan—along with paid time off and a new average wage of more than $14 an hour.
I’m confident fast-food workers, home care providers, Wal-Mart employees, school employees and many others who are joining the call for “$15 and a union” will ultimately be successful. With momentum, concrete improvements, moral authority and strength in numbers on our side, we will make our economy work for all of us, not just the richest few.
Henry is international president of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU).