Last week, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, flanked by labor activists, announced his plan to push legislation aimed at establishing a new federal minimum wage of $17.00 per hour. This new push represents the natural evolution of the widely recognized “Fight for Fifteen” slogan wielded by Americans who campaign for a living wage. As Sanders pointed out in his speech, $15.00 in 2021 was worth more than $17.00 in today’s devalued currency.
The federal minimum wage has remained at just $7.25 for the past 14 years, during which time it has lost more than 27 percent of its purchasing power. In the restaurant industry it is a mere $2.13 per hour, with the expectation that customers will reward good service with tips.
Asking for Too Much?
According to the MIT living wage calculator, which estimates the cost of living in every state and county of the US, factoring in the cost of food, transportation, healthcare and other bare necessities in a life devoid of luxury, the $17 per hour that critics dismiss as unrealistic and exorbitant is actually barely enough to sustain American families in many parts of the country.
As Sanders pointed out in a recent op-ed published in the Guardian, for two working adults and one child, a living hourly wage for each adult would be $18.69 in West Virginia, $17.55 in South Carolina, $21.57 in Maryland, $20.01 in Utah and $19.33 in Wisconsin, and $19.58 in Vermont. And for single-parent families, the living hourly wage is even higher.
Raising the minimum wage is more than a matter of giving people their due; denying working people the basic dignity of a living wage is certainly abominable. When such raises happen, the overall societal benefits are vast: They decrease suicide and crime recidivism, reduce job turnover and stimulate local economies and overall economic growth, according to Heidi Shierholz of the Economic Policy Institute, who gave remarks following Sanders’ announcement. And when the minimum wage rises, wages tend to rise across the board.
Back in 2021, tens of millions of Americans were poised to get the raise they need and deserve, when the US House of Representatives included a long-overdue adjustment of the federal minimum wage to $15.00 as a measure of the American Rescue Plan, Democrats’ $1.9 trillion economic stimulus and COVID-19 relief package.
But Senators Joe Manchin of West Virginia, Jon Tester of Montana, Jeanne Shaheen and Maggie Hassan of New Hampshire, Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, Chris Coons and Tom Carper of Delaware, and Angus King of Maine (who like Sanders, is technically independent but caucuses with the Democrats) joined Senate Republicans in ensuring that the measure was removed.
A dozen US states have voted to raise the minimum wage in the face of continued inaction from a recalcitrant US Congress. Nebraska and Florida, both heavily Republican, held referenda where clear majorities have voted to raise the minimum wage to $15.00 per hour, illustrating the widespread and bipartisan popularity of the notion that workers deserve a living wage, which is (or ought to be) common sense. In red and blue states alike, ballot initiatives to raise the minimum wage always pass. So as Sanders frequently argues, a living wage for workers in the world’s richest country is not a “radical” idea. It’s a glaring indictment of the government in Washington that American workers face so much opposition.
One reporter pushed back against Sanders, implying that raising the minimum wage would hurt small businesses, citing a hypothetical burger restaurant that would find itself struggling to employ its staff. Sanders’ response was characteristically gruff and poignant: “When these people are able to earn a living wage, you know what? Maybe then they’ll be able to go out and buy a damn hamburger.”
A True Living Wage
That many politicians deem $7.25 an appropriate wage for Americans toiling at the very bottom of the economy is as preposterous as it is appalling. Who could advocate something so monstrous? But these politicians serve bourgeois interests, hypnotized by powerful lobbyists, the agents of forces that will always scheme to keep wages as low as possible in order to maximize private profits. This antagonism is baked into our capitalist mode of production in which workers’ labor power must be exploited by capital.
The disintegration of unions and collective bargaining in the US are examples of the retrogression of hard-fought victories by the working class against those who exploit them. The decades-long decline of real wages is another. Political Economy, a textbook issued by the Economics Institute of the Academy of Sciences of the U.S.S.R, describes in Chapter 8 on Wages how “as capitalism develops real wages fall. Unlike the prices of other commodities the price of labour-power, as a rule, fluctuates below its value. This is due above all to the existence of unemployment, to extensive use of female and child labour and to the paying of extremely low wages to the agricultural workers and also to the workers in the colonial and dependent countries: An important factor in the decline in real wages is the rise in the prices of consumer goods, high rents and the growth of taxation.”
So while Sanders’ call for a “living wage” may be both necessary and noble, he is also correct in concluding his idea is not truly “radical.” No democratic reform within the present capitalist mode of production will deliver working people from their increasingly precarious situation, so long as forces work tirelessly to undermine and reverse such gains. True and lasting peace, justice and dignity for American workers will only arrive when, instead of struggling and striving for every cent grudgingly paid to them, they’re put in control of the economy and can reap the total value of their collective labor power. Political Economy writes that, “While recognising the great importance of the economic struggle of the working class against the bourgeoisie, Marxism-Leninism teaches that this struggle is directed merely against the consequences of capitalism and not against the root cause of the oppressed situation and poverty of the proletariat. This root cause is the capitalist mode of production itself. Only through revolutionary political struggle can the working class abolish the system of wage slavery, the source of its economic and political oppression.”
It is not enough simply to bemoan the ever-growing immiseration of workers and demand they begin getting their fair share; nothing less than full worker control over the state can bring prosperity for the many instead of the few.