The low-wage spark

The struggle to raise the federal minimum wage from $7.25 to $15 an hour, which is being embraced not only by many unions but by a wide range of popular and community-based organizations, is a struggle to reverse the decades-long trend in the United States to impoverish the working class. This is especially so where the fight for a minimum wage is combined with the fight to organize workers into unions.

Adjusted for inflation, the minimum wage reached its all-time high in the late 1960s, when it was equal to almost $9 an hour in today’s money, according to the Pew Research Center. Some claim it should be closer to $11 an hour.

Why the 1960s? Not coincidentally, that was a period of heightened struggle on many fronts, in which progressive movements could bring tens and even hundreds of thousands of people into the streets to demand civil rights; liberation for Chicano, Native and Black people; an end to the war in Vietnam; women’s liberation; freedom for Puerto Rico; gay rights and many more. Interestingly, unions at that time were generally not in the forefront of struggle, with a few bright exceptions: those organizing hospital workers and farm workers.

These movements often met vicious repression, but they had many victories. Legal segregation was ended; the U.S. was driven out of Southeast Asia; more jobs opened up for people of color and women; abortion was made legal. But the ruling class, the owners of the military-industrial-banking complex, remained in the saddle. They had bent a little in order not to break. One of their concessions was to raise the minimum wage.

Today’s movement is grounded in the broad, multinational working class, especially its poorest sectors, a majority of whom are women, who may be targets of racism and anti-immigrant bias as well. With widespread, long-term unemployment caused by the unsolvable crisis of capitalist overproduction, workers of all ages are facing an uncertain future. Many live under extremely painful circumstances. For older workers, the loss of a job can be followed by loss of their homes, unemployment insurance, pensions and even the ability to look for work. For younger workers, it can mean being saddled with debt when the only jobs open pay the barest minimum, or below.

In the same period that the minimum wage has shriveled to far below even the barest subsistence level for a family, the profits of the rich have soared to almost unimaginable heights. This is the fuel for a new and mighty upsurge.

With resistance growing, and new organizations like the people’s and workers’ assemblies on the move, 2014 looks to be a year of great promise.