Across the country, millions of working people are earning the minimum wage and struggling to survive. Some of them live in states like New York or Washington, where it’s currently $15 an hour, but many continue to earn the federal minimum of just $7.25 — an amount that has lost more than 17 percent of its purchasing power since it was last increased more than 11 years ago. At forty hours a week for fifty weeks, these workers would earn less than $15,000 a year. That’s a little more than $1,200 a month, which is not enough to live on almost anywhere in the United States, and certainly not enough to support a family of any size. According to the National Low Income Housing Coalition, minimum-wage workers, including those in states with a $15 minimum wage, would have to work 79 hours every week to be able to afford a one bedroom apartment at market rates. In other words, they would have to work the equivalent of two jobs just to be able to afford the most basic of necessities.
In response, activists and unions, including the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), have been campaigning and lobbying for a national $15 an hour minimum wage since at least 2012, and have won significant victories in some cities and states including California and New York. Since then, the demand has become increasingly popular, and has been embraced by several mainstream politicians, including Bernie Sanders. Even President Biden campaigned on the issue, and until recently promised to include it in his first coronavirus relief package. Last week, however, in a conference call with U.S governors, Biden made it clear that the demand will almost certainly not be included in any stimulus package that passes congress.
According to Biden, the reconciliation process — which allows any future relief package to pass with a mere majority rather than the super majority needed to defeat a potential Republican filibuster — will not allow for the inclusion of a federal minimum wage increase. Whether this argument is true or not — and there seems to be little evidence that it actually is — it’s clearly nothing but an excuse for Biden to jettison a proposal that is popular with the public but strongly opposed even by some members of his own party. In fact, just a week before the conference call, the Democratically-controlled Senate passed a resolution effectively prohibiting the inclusion of a $15 federal minimum wage in the relief package. This turn away from what was a central plank of his campaign shows that the Biden administration is no friend of working people, that he is not willing to fight members of his party over such issues, and that his real focus as President remains the stabilization of the U.S. economy and getting back to the business of exploitation as usual.
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This is not the only issue that Biden has backed away from in recent days, however. In fact, it’s part of a series of compromises that he has made and promises that he has broken as he pivots away from the progressive stands of his first few weeks in office toward a more conservative, neoliberal approach, grounded in bipartisan compromise. For instance, he has openly rejected calls from within his own party to forgive up to $50,000 in student loan debt and has hinted that there will likely be serious limits on any student loan relief — limits that could keep millions from qualifying for any loan forgiveness at all. Meanwhile, his new immigration guidelines, which include targeted Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) deportations, directly contradict his promise to halt deportations.
But of course, even if Biden somehow keeps his promise and increases the federal minimum wage, it will be years before workers actually see $15 an hour. Even Bernie Sanders has deflected criticism of the proposal by saying that the Democrats have no intention of increasing the minimum wage all at once. Meanwhile, Biden has made it clear that such a move would not happen until at least 2025. $15 is already far too low for workers to live on, and would be even less so four years from now. Indeed, it’s been more than a decade since activists started campaigning for $15 an hour and a union. For that demand to have the same value by 2025, it would have to be closer to $19 or $20 just to keep pace with inflation, not to mention have any chance of helping minimum wage workers recover from the economic shock of the pandemic.
Biden’s actions show once again that expecting the government to advocate on behalf of working people is a losing strategy. Any increase in the minimum wage would, of course, be a welcome relief. But to win a real living wage and more, we will have to build new unions led by the rank and file, and organize within and across our workplaces and in the streets. But even that is not enough. To win what we want will also require the construction of a united front of the entire class, including students and the unemployed, capable of using working-class methods, such as mass strikes and massive demonstrations to legitimately threaten or stop the operations of the economy.