A $15 minimum wage is about basic fairness

No full-time worker should have to live in poverty

WHEN WE LOOK back at 2016, we should remember it as the year our working class finally began turning the corner after far too many lean years. Evidence of progress – and a growing chorus of support – are all around us. Not only are voters taking the fight for fair wages to the ballot box as the issue of income inequality becomes a central point in the presidential election, they are securing major wage victories in cities and states around the nation.

We will remember this year – and 2015 – as the time when momentum shifted in the effort to bridge the gap between the richest and poorest. Workers in New York and California recently celebrated historic achievements when those states announced a pathway to a $15 an hour minimum wage for the first time. And here in Massachusetts, Boston Mayor Martin Walsh last week voiced his support for a living wage of $15 an hour.

The news comes as workers from all walks of life are increasingly agreeing that everyone who works a fulltime job deserves a paycheck that can support a family. Right now nearly 64 million Americans – including 1.2 million workers in Massachusetts – are falling far short of that. They are paid less than $15 an hour, forcing them to make choices that no hard-working person should make – pay the heating bill or buy groceries? Pay for medicine, or pay the rent?

There has been enormous progress since the first wage action event two years ago, but clearly an enormous amount of work remains to be done. That’s why Massachusetts workers in a variety of industries – from health care and transportation to education, retail and fast food – are standing up to demand change. We are demanding a $15 minimum wage in Massachusetts. On Thursday, we will join millions of workers around the nation and the globe in what will be the largest-ever series of wage-related strikes and protests.

Statistic after statistic confirms what these workers are again telling us: It’s not fair that a man or woman puts in a full week of hard work – and gets pay in return that leaves his or her family struggling, and often failing, to afford necessities. That reality surrounds all of us every day, even as big corporations and a wealthy 1 percent manipulate the rules to avoid paying fair wages and their fair share of taxes. It should come as no surprise then that 65 percent of Americans believe that the US economic system “unfairly favors powerful interests,” according to the Pew Research Center.

Why wouldn’t they, when the gap between the top and the bottom has never been greater? The world’s top one percent together owns almost $43 trillion – more than the bottom 3 billion people on earth. Here in the US, wages for the middle and working class continue to stagnate, even as CEOs are making – and taking home – more.

That’s why April 14 is so important. It’s when workers like Joanne Edmond of Brockton will rally outside the State House in support of the most basic and fundamental part of the American dream: a wage that can support her and her son. Joanne has worked for 10 years as a certified nursing assistant at Golden Living Center – Wedgemere in Taunton, where she makes $13.64 an hour and has no benefits. It’s hard to pay the rent and get a good education for her son on her salary.

Joanne and thousands of other Massachusetts workers will come together to demand $15 an hour and union rights. And that’s not all. Throughout the day, workers will take a stand in the fight for fair wages. Fast food workers are planning to strike, while students and faculty at Boston University will rally for a fair contract for adjunct professors. Workers also plan to march to McDonald’s and McCormick & Schmick’s – two of the area’s worst purveyors of poverty wages and poor working conditions.

Just as important, workers will put a spotlight on poverty wages and advocate for a variety of bills – currently pending in the Legislature – that will improve wages and working conditions.

Meet the Author

While we are calling for a $15 an hour minimum wage for all workers in Massachusetts, passage of these bills now is critical because they will immediately provide a path to a living wage to tens of thousands of workers employed in industries such as big box retail, aviation services, and homecare. The time to take action is now. With a few simple votes, the lives of families in virtually every Massachusetts city and town will be made dramatically better.

Tyrék D. Lee, Sr. is the executive vice president of 1199SEIU United Healthcare Workers East, which represents more than 52,000 healthcare workers throughout Massachusetts and over 400,000 workers across the East Coast.