Six years ago, 200 fast-food workers took to the streets of New York City with a bold call for a $15 minimum wage and a union. The movement they launched, responding to years of stagnant wages and a diminishing voice for workers on the job, caught fire.
By joining together and going on strike, workers in the Fight for $15 and a Union made it clear that $15 is the bare minimum workers everywhere need to get by. Since the launch of the movement, scores of cities, states and companies across the country have raised pay to $15, most recently the states of New Jersey and Illinois.
Nearly 30 percent of U.S. workers are now in the five states plus Washington, DC that have $15 minimum wages, and the U.S. House of Representatives is moving full steam ahead with legislation for a national $15 minimum wage. A House labor committee voted the legislation out of committee earlier this month.
Yet, as momentum for $15 reaches a fever pitch with hearings in cities and states across the country, a disturbing echo of the segregationist past has begun to emerge. Having lost the battle around $15, big corporations are trying to re-introduce the old and pernicious idea of a regional minimum wage—pushing the notion that we should have different wage levels for different parts of the country.
The idea flows out of a philosophy of institutional racism, but, ironically, while a regional minimum wage hurts Black workers, and especially Black women, disproportionately, and it would reinforce and exacerbate existing racial disparities, it would end up hurting workers of all colors, not just Black workers. No region of the country would be harmed more than the South.
We’ve been down this road before. When Congress first took up legislation for a national wage floor in the early 1930s, segregationist Democrats in the South petitioned for different wages based on race. When they didn’t succeed, a compromise was reached to allow regional and occupational variations, in effect maintaining the same racial disparities. The law that was eventually passed, the National Industrial Recovery Act, was ruled unconstitutional.
In 1938, Congress finally passed a uniform national minimum wage in the Fair Labor Standards Act in 1938, establishing a national wage floor of $0.25 an hour. Southern lawmakers lobbied against the wage provision on racist grounds. Rep. James Wilcox of Florida fumed that a national wage floor would “know no color line and of necessity…cannot make any distinction between the races…it will prescribe the same wage for the Negro that it prescribes for the white man. You cannot put the Negro and the white man on the same basis and get away with it.”
Yet, in a cave to the Southern bloc, the FLSA included exemptions for two groups of workers who were at that time largely Black: farmworkers and domestic workers. Only in 1966, under pressure from a growing civil rights movement, did Congress finally expand wage protections to agricultural, restaurant, nursing home and other service sector workers.
The impact was immediate and dramatic. The 1966 amendment raised wages for more than one in five workers – approximately nine million Americans – with a disproportionate effect on Black Americans. The poverty rate for African-American children in families plummeted from 65.6 percent in 1965 to 39.6 percent in 1969. All told, the wage hike alone closed 20 percent of the Black-White earnings and income gap. And while the impact of the new wage protections was strongest in states that had previously had the lowest minimum wages, higher wages were not accompanied by a significant loss of jobs.
Today, opponents of a higher minimum wage want to take us backwards, with calls for a regionally tiered wage that would reintroduce the same racial disparities that kept millions of workers behind for decades.
Half of Black workers across the country live in states where the minimum wage has stayed at or below $7.25 an hour – and most of those states are concentrated in the South, including Georgia, Mississippi, Alabama, South Carolina, Louisiana, and Tennessee. Given how resistant Southern states have been to any wage increases, and given racist pre-emption laws that prevent many cities in the South from raising pay, there is virtually no chance that workers in these areas will ever be paid a living wage unless the federal government acts.
Without federal action (or a raise from her employer), Black workers like McDonald’s cashier Tanya Harrell in Gretna, Louisiana, will be stuck at $8, forcing her to continue to rely on taxpayer assistance through Medicaid to survive. Tiffany Lowe in Memphis will continue to be paid just $7.60 at KFC, forcing her to rely on taxpayers for healthcare and to feed her children. And Lois Jones in Durham, North Carolina, will need Medicaid and SNAP to support her kids because the $8.50 she’s paid at McDonald’s just isn’t enough.
Many of the same Southern states with low minimum wages also have “Right-to-Work” provisions that weaken collective bargaining and the voice of workers on the job, as well as smaller budgets to enforce wages and other labor standards. And these are many of the same places where voting rights are under attack and Medicaid expansion is being denied.
A regional minimum wage, in short, would leave the South behind. And while Black workers would be hurt most, the impact would go well beyond working people of color. As John P. Davis of the National Negro Congress noted in his arguments for the Fair Labor Standards Act, “Once you permit employer-pressure groups to secure exemptions and differentials affecting…Negro workers, you will find that the very exploitative conditions you hope to cure by this bill will not be cured. Instead, the growing impoverishment of Negro workers will be the ugly cancer preventing the improvement of the lot of a much larger number of white workers.”
The U.S. House has the chance to rectify years of shamefully low wages and ensure all workers can finally earn enough to put food on the table and pay the rent. Given this historic opportunity, we can’t repeat the mistakes of the past.
Rev. William J. Barber II is president of Repairers of the Breach and co-chair of the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival. Mary Kay Henry is president of the Service Employees International Union. Lee Saunders is president of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees.