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The fight for a $15 minimum wage is gaining major momentum

Written by Think Forward Staff
Friday, 31 July 2015

Almost three years after fast food workers in the U.S. staged nationwide protests calling for a $15 minimum wage, the "Fight for 15" is gaining huge momentum across North America, with the province of Alberta and cities such as Seattle, Los Angeles, and San Francisco approving $15 wages, and the state of New York preparing to do the same for workers in the fast food industry.

Demands for a $15 minimum wage have come amidst rising income inequality in Canada and the U.S., as higher wages are an important element in fighting poverty and inequality. And workers in low-wage industries, like the fast food and retail sectors, are increasingly realizing that "companies making billions in profits" can afford to pay their employees a living wage.

But business leaders continue to insist that raising the minimum wage leads to massive job losses, despite all evidence to the contrary.

In Alberta, the Canadian Federation of Independent Businesses is claiming that the province's plan to raise the minimum wage to $15 by 2018 – a 32 percent increase over the current minimum wage, phased in over three years – will cost the economy "between 53,500 and 195,000 jobs." However, when British Columbia raised its minimum wage by 28 percent in 2011, the employment rate for workers under 25 – the age group most likely to earn the minimum wage – remained virtually unchanged.

The same thing happened in SeaTac, Washington, a community located near the Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, when the city raised its minimum wage to $15 an hour early last year. Prior to city council adopting the wage increase, several local businesses said they would be forced to eliminate jobs and reduce hours if the increase was approved. But according to Washington Post reporter Dana Milbank, "those who opposed the $15 wage in SeaTac...admit there has been no calamity so far," and one of the hotels that vigorously fought the increase has moved ahead with a $16 million expansion.

Beyond their spurious job claims, opponents of the Fight for 15 ignore the fact that a "living" minimum wage can drastically boost the incomes of low-wage workers, reduce working poverty, and go a long way in combating income inequality. And, as the Edmonton Jounral points out, "higher minimum wages create incentives for employers to offer better, more stable jobs by making low-wage, high-turnover business models more expensive."

There is also no evidence that raising the minimum wage causes job losses by compelling employers to move to nearby, low-wage jurisdictions. Instead, the opposite is true: when Washington state adopted a minimum wage that was 50 percent higher than the minimum wage in neighbouring Idaho, employers in Idaho raised their pay to compete for local workers seeking better-paying jobs. Similarly, when the city of Santa Fe, New Mexico exempted small businesses with less than 25 employees from its minimum wage – which was 65 percent higher than the state and federal minimum wage at the time – most of the city's small businesses raised their wages anyway in order to stay competitive.

This is to say nothing of the positive impact that higher wages can have on local economies. Since consumer spending is closely tied to disposable income, workers who earn more tend to spend more in their communities. Clearly, then, raising the minimum wage to a livable pay rate benefits both workers and the economy, and does not lead to wide scale job losses.

Now, with multiple victories in Alberta, New York, and cities throughout the U.S., the Fight for 15 is set to become a key issue in this year's federal election, as the Official Opposition is proposing a $15 minimum wage for employees in federally-regulated sectors. If that campaign pledge becomes a reality, what impact will it have on other jurisdictions in North America?

Evidently, while the Fight for 15 is primarily focused on winning a living wage for workers in the fast food and retail industries, in several places it is helping to win a higher minimum wage for workers in all sectors of the economy. The campaign is now receiving public policy attention at the state, provincial, and national levels in the U.S. and Canada, and there are likely more victories on the horizon.



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