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Davis, California

Monday, April 22, 2024

The fight for 15


California workers to benefit from new minimum wage

California took a large step toward improving the lives of its lowest earning workers last week by signing into law a $15 minimum wage that will be phased in by 2022. The move, which came on the same day New York passed its own similar bill, promises to provide millions of Californians with a much-needed pay raise.

Before signing the law, Gov. Jerry Brown adopted the right tone of economic skepticism and moral imperative that should accompany any sweeping change like the one enacted Monday. While acknowledging that, “minimum wages may not make sense,” he also praised them for their social and political benefits.

It’s true that in a large state like California, with vastly diverse economies, one base wage might pose problems. Workers in San Diego may benefit more than workers in the Central Valley, where the cost of living is significantly lower and an increasing minimum wage could restrict employment opportunities.

Thankfully, the law signed on Monday provides a sensible mechanism by which wage increases can be paused in the event of a recession. And the six year timeline — four years longer than New York’s — suggests that potential problems can be studied and dealt with as they arise. California also gives small businesses, defined as those with fewer than 26 employees, another year to meet the base wage.

Slow timelines like these have provided huge benefits. As Seattle instituted its own $15 minimum wage, its restaurant industry boomed, despite the usual apocalyptic language labor opponents used to paint the proposal.

And California’s law, fitfully passed by the legislature on César Chávez Day, affirms the struggles of labor like no other proposal.

The Service Employees International Union (SEIU), which represents approximately two million workers, sponsored one of two competing ballot initiatives that would have increased the minimum wage to $15 by 2021, one year earlier than the current law. By possibly leaving the wage question to the voter, the SEIU effectively pressured Sacramento to pass its own, better law with a much-needed sense of urgency.

The actions of the SEIU underscore the importance of organized labor in fighting a decades-long stagnation of wages. However, labor leaders must show good faith. In Los Angeles, where a $15 minimum wage was passed last summer, some union heads argued that a worker’s right to collectively bargain should allow them to take a subminimum wage in exchange for other benefits, like better working conditions.

If organized labor were to use this line of hypocritical argument, it would undermine the whole point of a minimum wage — namely that it should be a minimum. As the partisan vote to pass California’s law showed, the minimum wage has enough opponents without the extra headache of labor.

Indeed, the vote itself, seemingly thrown together in a matter of days, calls to question whether lawmakers fully appreciated the magnitude of their actions. Though it’s refreshing to see legislators actually legislate in a timely manner, not much consideration was given to how the minimum wage might affect, say, retirees who live on fixed incomes ever sensitive to increasing inflation.

Still, the wage increases passed in California and New York are cause for celebration. Now that the two of the most populous states in the nation have resoundingly affirmed the working class’ right to live comfortably, Congress should take it upon itself to enact a higher federal minimum wage.


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