After several years of meteoric growth, business groups are boasting about setbacks in the movement for higher wages. But closer examination shows momentum remains strong for improving pay for the 40 percent of U.S. workers who struggle on less than $15 an hour.
Fast food workers launched the Fight for $15 in 2012, and by early last year, cities and states representing 18 percent of the U.S. workforce had approved $15 minimum wages. Once phased in, these measures will deliver raises of around $4,000 a year for more than one third of the workforce in states like New York and California, beginning to reverse decades of growing income inequality. In November, voters in four more states and one city approved minimum wage increases of $12 to $15 an hour, with the result that about one quarter of the nation will soon be covered by high minimum wages.
Push back was inevitable. It started with New Jersey Governor Chris Christie vetoing a $15 minimum wage passed by the legislature. Then in Flagstaff, Arizona after voters approved the first $15 wage in the southwest, business groups filed a counter-initiative seeking to roll it back. Last week Baltimore Mayor Catherine Pugh vetoed a $15 minimum wage increase. And now in Missouri, after the state supreme court struck down the Tea Party legislature's attempt to block wage increases in St. Louis and Kansas City, the legislature is threatening to try a new ban.
But despite these speed bumps, closer scrutiny shows that the movement to raise pay is, if anything, spreading to more states. In New Jersey, where Governor Christie is term-limited, the leading candidates to succeed him back the $15 minimum wage, making passage in 2018 likely. In Flagstaff, the city council rejected attempts to schedule an early election on the initiative to cut the wage and, while tweaking the law to smooth its phase-in, actually raised the city's minimum wage even higher to $15.50. In Maryland, where Mayor Pugh has urged action at the state level instead, Democrats have introduced a statewide $15 minimum wage bill. And in Missouri, if the legislature passes a new ban on local raises, advocates have already filed paperwork to put a statewide wage increase on the 2018 ballot where it is all but certain to pass.