The Nation: This Is What $15 an Hour Looks Like

Ian Pajer-Rogers |

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From The Nation:

by Gabriel Thompson

On a crisp November morning in Oakland, 50 people dressed in red T-shirts burst into a McDonald’s, bringing breakfast orders to a halt. From behind the counter, several cashiers gaped at the scene, where an orderly line of customers had been replaced by a rowdy crew that bounced and shouted, calling for the restaurant to raise its wages to $15 an hour. A supervisor whipped out her cell phone and began filming. The chant, directed at the workers, grew louder: “Come on out—we’ve got your back!” After giving it some thought, three female employees walked past their supervisor, clocked out, and joined the protesters. The crowd erupted in cheers.

The group, which included striking fast-food workers from across the East Bay, gathered afterward in the parking lot to celebrate. They would hit half a dozen restaurants before the day was over, part of a nationwide movement that has grown to attract low-wage workers across multiple industries. Among the strikers was Shardeja Woolridge, who works part-time at a McDonald’s in the nearby city of Hayward, where she lives with her mother in a two-bedroom apartment. Woolridge earns $9 an hour, California’s minimum wage; her mom receives disability benefits. It’s not nearly enough. They’ve received eviction notices and had their electricity shut off. The 19-year-old recently enrolled at Berkeley City College but struggled to pay for textbooks. “I can hardly buy my own soap or deodorant,” she says. Behind her, workers hoist a red-and-black banner that reads #fightfor15.

I ask Woolridge what might be different if she made $15 an hour. “Whoa,” she says. “Fifteen.” Her eyes turn to the cloudless sky. “Whoa,” she repeats, her voice trailing off. She could help pay the rent. She could stock the fridge with food. She could afford Wi-Fi. Above all, she could finally stop fighting so much with her mom. “We are constantly butting heads,” Woolridge says. “She doesn’t understand that I don’t have money. I’m like, ‘This is really all I make,’ but she can’t get it.”

The movement for a $15 minimum wage began three years earlier, on a chilly fall morning in 2012, when 200 fast-food workers walked off the job in New York City. Their demand was audacious: $15 an hour was more than twice what many of them earned. But more strikes and protests followed, with the movement spreading quickly, driven by workers like Woolridge. What had started as a targeted campaign under the slogan “Fast Food Forward” grew to include low-wage workers across numerous industries.

“Movements are built on big, bold, aspirational demands,” says David Rolf, president of SEIU 775, who led the fight in 2013 for the $15 minimum-wage ordinance in SeaTac, Washington, home of the Seattle-Tacoma International Airport. Rolf credits the Fight for $15 with shaping a “monumental shift in political discourse.” It’s not just that Bernie Sanders is championing the cause; during a recent Republican presidential debate, the first question to candidates was whether they supported the increase. The Fight for $15 has become the rare labor fight that is too big to ignore.

 Still, for workers like Woolridge, a $15 minimum wage remains a bold thought experiment. Certain cities have adopted the $15 standard, but their rollouts have tended to be gradual: Seattle’s minimum wage for large employers will reach $15 in 2017, Los Angeles’s in 2020. Yet if we walked one block west of this McDonald’s in Oakland, we would enter the city of Emeryville, where, last July, the minimum wage for many workers jumped to $14.44 overnight. And now that Emeryville boasts the highest citywide minimum wage in the country—one that approaches and will eventually surpass $15 an hour—it has become a testing ground of sorts. When workers at the bottom of the economy suddenly receive a significant bump in pay, what changes? What doesn’t?

* * *

Emeryville is a wedge of a city long over-shadowed by its neighbors, Oakland and Berkeley. It once teemed with card rooms, speakeasies, and brothels, serving as a destination for folks who wanted to do the sorts of things that weren’t allowed back home. During the Great Depression, local district attorney Earl Warren—who would later become chief justice of the United States—famously declared Emeryville “the rottenest city on the Pacific Coast.”

Today, that frontier feel is mostly gone. In the center of town, where drunken fans once cheered a minor-league team, sits Pixar’s sprawling campus. Dozens of biotech and pharmaceutical firms are based in the city, and industrial sites have been scrubbed clean and replaced by the sort of retail development that has taken over suburbs across the country. The city’s current reputation, to the extent that it has one, is as the mall of the East Bay. There’s a Home Depot and an Ikea, a Gap, J. Crew, and Forever 21. Though it spans just under two square miles, Emeryville boasts four shopping centers, with The New York Timesdescribing it as a “retail mecca.”

That mecca needs workers. According to the East Bay Economic Development Alliance, in 2014 there were about 22,000 workers in the city—twice the number of residents. “Emeryville was a gritty industrial place that became a boomtown, a major corporate center,” says Jennifer Lin of the East Bay Alliance for a Sustainable Economy, or EBASE, a labor-backed group that supported the minimum-wage hike. But the boom was concentrated at the top: About one in 10 employees in Emeryville—2,227 people—earn the minimum wage. That’s roughly four times the national rate.

One of those workers is Ty’Ler Wright. The 23-year-old has worked at Pak ’N Save, the city’s largest grocery store, for three years. She applied for the job largely to help her mother, Sonya, who also works there. Growing up, Wright, who has two younger siblings, watched her mom negotiate payment plans to remain a step ahead of bill collectors. The family moved several times before finally renting a house in West Oakland, a few blocks from the Emeryville border. “She never asked me to help her pay, but I had seen her struggle,” Wright says, standing next to her mother in the store’s parking lot after a shift. “I was not about to be in someone’s house and not help out.”

 Wright was hired as a part-time courtesy clerk, collecting wayward shopping carts and cleaning bathrooms for $8 an hour. It didn’t take long to realize the job didn’t do much to help the family. Her weekly checks were as low as $150, the money gone practically as soon as it arrived. Still, she stuck it out, landing a full-time schedule and rising to become head of the dairy department. But her wages stayed at the state minimum, which grew to $9 an hour last year.

This spring, news that Emeryville workers would be getting a raise spread quickly at Pak ’N Save. “We were all very excited,” Wright tells me, smiling widely. Though it was a warm afternoon in August, she was bundled up in a gray UC Berkeley hoodie to ward off the chill from the refrigerator aisles. “It feels like we’re actually making money.”

It was less than two months since the raise, but Wright had already noticed a “major, major change” in her life. The obvious difference was financial: After taxes, her weekly checks now come to nearly $500. She can pay her bills, help her mom out, and still have what she calls “rollover money” to put in the bank. This has lightened everyone’s load. “My mom is way more relaxed,” she says, gesturing to Sonya, who smiles and nods.

The future looks different, too. “With $9, I was thinking, ‘Do I really want to do this for much longer?’” says Wright, waving at a co-worker. “Now, we’re at the top.”

* * *

The movement to raise the minimum wage has swept through the Bay Area like no place else, with each day seeming to bring news of another city that has implemented an increase or is seeking to do so. Recently, the mayors of eight cities in the South Bay—the heart of Silicon Valley—announced that they were contemplating a regional wage that would eventually reach $15 an hour. “Two years ago, if you had said you wanted a $15 minimum wage, it was unthinkable,” says EBASE’s Lin. “Now, it’s virtually unstoppable.”

Read the full article from The Nation.