Fight for $15 – and the Birth of the Next American Middle Class

Stephen Herzenberg |

Today, low-wage worker protests across Pennsylvania, the nation, and the globe will reach their greatest scale yet.

Mobilizing behind a demand for “$15 and a union,” this swelling movement holds the key to the future of opportunity and the middle class in America.

The basic idea here is simple. Most U.S. jobs—and an even higher share of jobs that pay below a family- supporting wage—are in service industries that can’t relocate. You can’t empty the bed pans at UPMC from Tijuana. You can’t guard the Tower at PNC plaza from Beijing. You can’t customize a Subway sandwich for someone in Pittsburgh from Indonesia.

By forming regional (or statewide) labor unions in service industries—often similar in geographic scope to building trades unions—service workers will gain the ability to lift wage and benefit standards (and work-time, training, and other labor standards). Imagine unions of janitors, security guards, contingent university faculty, retail workers, supermarket workers, fast food workers, other restaurant workers, hotel workers, health care workers, etc.

Presto—they have wages of $15 per hour and above, instead of $7.25 to $13 per hour. The “union” part of “$15 and a union” is essential to, among other things, keep wages moving up with productivity growth following the initial catch-up wage jump to compensate (literally) for 35 years of wage stagnation.

In many industries, the bump-up of wages won’t have a big impact on total costs but could lead to substantial improvements in productivity and/or quality. One example where there could be a large quality boost is in the nursing home industry, about which we released this report two days ago.

Driving up wages will also boost consumption and economic growth AND, in the long-term, INCREASE productivity growth and innovation economy-wide. Businesses blocked from earning profit at the expense of their workers find a more productive focus for managerial energy.

With this just one little bit of social innovation—$15 AND a union—in all these regional service industries, you could solve the problem of inequality in America, and increase living standards for everyone more rapidly.
What’s not to like about this eminently practical solution embraced recently by economist Paul Krugman?

Occupy Wall Street some five or six years ago was criticized for not having a solution to the one-percent economy. The workers protesting today have a solution. They just need to keep pushing until society, as well as economic and political leaders, realize that they have a solution and that the solution works well for everybody.

Hats off to all the nursing home and other Pennsylvania workers joining the Fight for $15 today. Their fight for their families’ economic justice is also a fight for all of us to create the kind of Pennsylvania we want.