On Oct. 24, community activists, students, members of the Occupy Wall Street movement, labor unionists and underpaid workers from every industry will rally to mark the 75th anniversary of the first minimum wage law. They will demand an increase from the current federal hourly minimum wage of $7.25 to $15.
In New York City, protesters will gather in Herald Square, home to hundreds of businesses that pay tens of thousands of workers $7.25 an hour or, at most, $9. Other protests are set for Baltimore, Boston, Providence, R.I.; Durham, N.C.; Los Angeles and San Diego, as well as other cities and towns.
Baltimore is in particular need of such a movement. One out of every four people lives in poverty. Along with joblessness, poverty wages are a major source of this continuing problem.
The original call for protests on Oct. 24 was initiated by the Baltimore and Maryland “We Deserve Better” Workers Assembly on Sept. 1, during the Labor Day weekend.
Seventy-five years ago, on Oct. 24, the first minimum wage in the United States went into effect. In the summer of 1938, Congress passed the “Fair Labor Standards Act.” It mandated for the first time that beginning on Oct. 24 of that year, employers would have to pay a minimum of at least 25 cents an hour to most workers.
This first minimum wage — an important part of groundbreaking New Deal legislation of that period — came about after years of struggle by the growing labor movement and the mass movement of underpaid and brutally exploited workers during the 1930s Great Depression.
Oct. 24 and the fight to raise workers’ wages
No one can survive on $7.25 an hour. Nearly everyone but the most exploitative business owners would agree. The major problem is that in this stage of capitalist development, low wages have become the norm for the working class.
It’s worth looking at statistics from two studies reported in the Huffington Post. On Jan. 23, 2012, the HP blog reported the median annual income of U.S. workers was $26,364. Then, it stated on Feb. 13 of this year, that “the minimum wage would be $21.74 if it kept pace with increases in productivity.”
This means what most Walmart and fast food workers know — that half of U.S. workers make less than $15 an hour and are barely surviving, alternately choosing between paying rent or eating, getting medical care or having transportation. Low wages are a huge part of the equation in the growing income gap between the very wealthy and the working class.
For oppressed and women workers, the situation is more abysmal. In many cases, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, Black workers make $10,000 a year less than other workers, while Latinos/as earn $15,000 below other workers’ pay.
Why $15 an hour?
The organizers of the Oct. 24 protests carefully chose the demand of $15 an hour because it is the central demand of a new and dynamic movement of underpaid workers who are fighting for economic justice and the right to unionize. This movement has been spearheaded by workers in the fast food industry and at mega-box store chains like Walmart.
These brave workers have staged work actions and strikes over the past year and a half. Their movement is beginning to expand to underpaid workers beyond the big fast food and retail chains.
What is critically needed is classwide solidarity and support from the jobless, higher paid workers, students, community activists and labor unions.
Raising the minimum wage is beneficial to all workers, even the jobless, who have close family and friendship ties with underpaid workers — and who find themselves out of work at the bottom of the ladder. It would also greatly benefit part-time workers.
Organizers chose this demand after interacting with workers during weeks of mass distributions of literature, workers’ surveys and feedback from participants at the Sept. 1 Workers Assembly. This demand resounded.
The formation of workers’ assemblies has the potential of representing all the workers, employed, underemployed and unemployed, on a classwide basis; in this case, it pertains to the fight of fast food workers.
Assemblies can serve as the support necessary to elevate the call to raise workers’ wages into a political demand. Without this kind of support, it becomes very difficult, if not impossible, for these heroic workers to win. A victory would benefit the whole working class.
The writer is a representative of the Baltimore and Maryland “We Deserve Better” Workers Assembly.