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Fight for minimum wage raise in the US gains traction

Low-wage workers in NYC saw their pay rise US$2 to US$15/hour from Monday

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The "Fight for 15" campaign grew out of meetings community organisers convened to discuss the lack of affordable housing in New York and quickly turned to the poor pay of fast-food and retail jobs.

New York

SIX years after a group of fast-food workers in New York City - earning as little as US$7.25 an hour - made the seemingly preposterous demand for a US$15 minimum wage, more than one million of their peers will get just that starting this week.

On Monday, the lowest legal wage at most companies that employ more than 10 workers rose by US$2 to US$15 an hour. Among those whose pay will increase are all fast-food workers as well as more than 25,000 workers at the city's two airports.

The increase is the latest step in a gradual rise in the minimum wage that labour unions campaigned for and that governor Andrew Cuomo eventually endorsed. New York City joins several other cities on the West Coast where minimum wages have already hit US$15, including San Francisco and Seattle.

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California's minimum, which rises to US$12 an hour for larger employers on Jan 1, is scheduled to rise to US$15 over the next few years.

"The 'Fight for 15' has gone from a rallying cry to facts on the ground in just a few short years," said Paul Sonn, state policy programme director with the National Employment Law Project, which advocates for low-wage workers. "This demand was from the fast-food workers who explained that was the minimum they needed for a decent life."

The movement is no longer confined to high-cost cities on the coasts. Mr Sonn cited recent decisions by national retailers like Target and Amazon to raise their wages to at least US$15 an hour.

But the country is now a patchwork quilt of wages, with some states still operating under the federal minimum of US$7.25 an hour. Outside New York City, Connecticut's minimum wage is US$10.10, while in New Jersey, it is US$8.85, though the state's Democratic governor and the legislature, which is also controlled by Democrats, want to raise it to US$15.

For hourly workers, the increase can make a big difference. Rosa Rivera earned just US$5.15 an hour and relied on government assistance to pay her rent when she started working at a McDonald's in Manhattan 18 years ago. Now 53 and a veteran of several rallies for better wages, her eyes teared up as she spoke about attaining one of the main goals the workers had set.

"When I get my first cheque with US$15, I'm going to be so happy," said Ms Rivera, an immigrant from El Salvador with three children. She said she was proud to pay her rent and help support her grandchildren without federal benefits.

The "Fight for 15" campaign began in 2012, when the minimum wage in New York state was US$7.25. Fast-food wages had barely budged for many years, leaving many workers unable to feed their families and pay bills.

The campaign grew out of meetings community organisers convened to discuss the lack of affordable housing in New York, recalled Jonathan Westin, executive director of New York Communities for Change.

Talk quickly turned to the poor pay of so many fast-food and retail jobs, he said.

"They were such temporary jobs and they paid so little," Mr Westin said. "They felt like they really didn't have anything to lose."

Organisers thought US$10 an hour was a reasonable demand, he said, but workers were unimpressed. Their attitude, he said, was that "US$10 is not going to get me anything. We need to go much higher".

So, in late 2012, workers at several restaurants in the city walked off the job and staged the first rallies for a US$15 minimum wage, with the support of the Service Employees International Union and some local elected officials. Some of their bosses tolerated the disobedience, others did not.

In one of the more contentious confrontations, City Councilman Jumaane Williams of Brooklyn intervened to save the job of Shalonda Montgomery, who worked at a Wendy's in downtown Brooklyn. After she joined a walkout, her manager fired her. Mr Williams said he "basically staged an impromptu boycott" of the restaurant: "I started telling people why they shouldn't eat there."

Ms Montgomery soon had her job back. "This is another one of those great examples of an organised, grassroots campaign being able to change people's lives," said Mr Williams, who is running for city public advocate. He admitted that even he did not believe a US$15 minimum wage was realistic. "I actually thought that, OK, maybe we'll get US$12," he said.

In early 2015, Mr Cuomo, a Democrat, called for a raise of the hourly minimum wage to US$11.50 in New York City and US$10.50 for the rest of the state.

Mayor Bill de Blasio had an even bolder proposal - raise the city minimum to US$13 that year and to US$15 by 2019. Mr Cuomo declared the idea a "non-starter" with lawmakers in Albany.

But pressured by labour leaders like Hector Figueroa, president of 32BJ Service Employees International Union, Mr Cuomo - who is often mentioned as a possible presidential candidate in 2020 - changed his tone. In mid-2015, he convened a panel known as a wage board to consider raising the lowest wages of fast-food workers above the state minimum set by lawmakers in Albany.

After several hearings, the wage board put fast-food workers on a track towards a US$15 minimum wage. Within a year, Mr Cuomo had negotiated a budget that included a series of steps to raise the minimum wage at different paces for workers in various parts of the state.

That schedule may eventually bring the minimum to US$15 an hour statewide. At smaller employers in the city, the minimum increased to US$13.50 from US$12, and will rise again to US$15 on Dec 31, 2019. On Long Island and in Westchester County, the minimum rose to US$13 from US$12, and will rise in two more increments to get to US$15 in 2021.

By then, several other cities across the country will have minimum wages at or near US$15, though the effort has met with opposition. In 2017, Kansas City residents voted to raise the city's minimum wage to US$15 an hour. But the state legislature blocked the move, later approving a gradual increase of the state's hourly minimum wage to US$12 by 2023, starting with an increase this year to US$8.60 from US$7.85.

Mary Kay Henry, president of the Service Employees International Union, which adopted the Fight for 15 campaign across the country, said there would be more resistance like that encountered in Missouri.

But she added: "We are bound and determined not to stop until all workers get on a path to US$15 and also have a seat at the table and a voice in their jobs." NYTIMES