Three months ago, minimum wage workers in St. Louis got a raise. Today, they will see that raise taken away. The class war is being contested on every front simultaneously. No advance is safe.
Businesses rarely take away raises once they have been awarded. Experience has taught them that doing so is likely to provoke extreme bitterness and enmity in their employees. That doesn’t seem to matter now. Over the past several years, the Fight For 15 campaign has had a shocking amount of success raising minimum wages in states and municipalities across America, even as the federal minimum wage remains stubbornly low—a rare example of clear progressive victory on an economic issue that goes directly towards helping the poorest workers in this county. The right wing has responded with a strategy of preemption: If cities raise their wages, they will just get the state legislature to override them.
In May, St. Louis raised its minimum wage to $10 an hour, giving more than 30,000 people a raise that was, on average, $2,400 a year. This was political action translating directly into higher pay and higher standards of living for people struggling to get by. And it didn’t last. Today, a new Missouri state law will take effect which forces municipalities to adhere to the state minimum wage of $7.70 an hour. Businesses are now free to give employees a $2.30 an hour pay cut. And many of them certainly will.
Missouri is not alone. A new report from the Economic Policy Institute says that such preemption laws have been in use since 2010, when Republicans began to witness successful campaigns to raise wages across the nation. In the past year and a half, 15 states have passed laws preempting advances in minimum wage and other labor standards like paid leave and fair scheduling laws, a rate that EPI calls “unprecedented.”
This is a political fight over money. Money, in this case, is a proxy for justice. People who are honest enough to admit that it is not just to pay full-time workers wages that do not allow them to live a minimally decent life have joined with those workers to move a little more money into their pockets. And the people who do not want to pay workers that small amount of extra money have launched their own political campaign to take that money back. The Republican strategy is one that not only seeks to keep more money in the pockets of the rich, but to take back money that was briefly allocated to the poor, so that it can be returned to the rich. These are the terms of the fight.
Last week, the SEIU—the most politically active large labor union in America, and the main funder of the Fight For 15 campaign—announced that it will spend as much as $100 million in advance of the 2018 elections in an effort to get more progressives elected, mostly in the Midwest. On one hand, this grand expenditure on electoral politics is a bad idea at a time when unions need to use every last resource in order to organize workers and gain new members, lest organized labor continue to fade away. Every dollar spent on political races is a dollar not spent on union organizers. On the other hand, the decision to spend that money reflects what an impossible position the truly progressive labor movement finds itself in. The entire South has now passed “right to work” laws, making it terribly difficult to maintain and build union membership; the national Republican strategy of preempting wage advances with conservative state legislatures threatens to roll back the hard-won gains of the Fight for 15 movement; and, on a larger scale, the Trump era has lent a new urgency to the need to get at least one house of Congress in Democratic hands, lest we see an unlimited stream of anti-worker, pro-corporate laws and regulator rollbacks flow through Congress unopposed. Unions should not be the bank of the Democratic party. But they are facing prospects scary enough to make them feel that they have no other choice. They need more legislative victories just to maintain the status quo, which is a slow decline. It is an impossible position that demands stronger allies.
The battle against economic inequality is being fought by the Republican Party and all of corporate America, on one side, and on the other side... regular people and some unions. Some of the Democratic Party is helping, and some isn’t, and certainly not enough to declare that it is an actual progressive party to the same degree that the Republicans are anti-progressive. It is a fight with much more money on one side than the other. That money is trying to protect itself. It is going to be a bitter fight. And as the preemption campaign makes clear, no wins can be taken for granted. Anything achieved today can be taken away tomorrow.
One side of the class war will always have the money (and, by extension, the guns). The other side has the people. As long as money is being hoarded by a very few, there will always be many more people who have very little. We have humanity on our side. Business interests in Missouri passed a “right to work” law to kill unions; unions got 300,000 signatures to put the law on the 2018 ballot in order to roll it back. Money versus people. Eventually, in the long run, it is inevitable that people will win. What happens in our own lifetime remains an open question.