Time to Quit the Fantasy of Minimum-Wage Increase!
January 25, 2021
President Biden’s $1.9-trillion relief plan proposes a doubling of the US federal minimum wage to $15 an hour. Bipartisan, union, and liberal groups are quick to claim that the demand will at least reduce income inequality, raise many out of poverty, and help a lot of women workers. The “left-leaning” Economic Policy Institute estimated that a $15 minimum wage phased in by 2024 would directly lift the wages of 28.1 million workers. National Employment Law Project deemed minimum-wage increases as “needed now more than ever,” as these demands were enacted in 52 cities, counties, and states on New Year's Day, 2021.
But is raising the minimum wage the solution to workers’ hardships and economic inequality in this country?
Minimum-Wage Increase May Help a Few But Hurts and Divides the Working Class
Recent history shows that wage hikes did not help working people. Under Barack Obama, we saw numerous minimum-wage increases across the country, sparked by the Fight for $15 campaign led by the SEIU union with many Black and brown workers of the fast-food industry joining.
While the campaign claimed that 19 million workers benefitted, the minimum wage is not being enforced for millions of workers, even to this day—so how could we have projected such an optimistic picture?
What about all the people who work off the books, who are denied overtime pay for whom this increase means more wage theft? Even before the pandemic, workers across the country were already facing wage theft to the tune of $40 to $60 billion per year.
What about all the people who work off the books, who are denied overtime pay for whom this increase means more wage theft?
Why are workers, facing longer work hours, doing more than one person’s job while their employer lays off their co-workers? Why were workers facing deeper unemployment and underemployment not reflected in official stats? And why has the disparity of wealth escalated? Why has the working class become more fractured than ever with racism intensified?
The Fight for $15 itself contributed to these worsening conditions because only a small sector of the working class benefitted from that wage increase: those who were making the previous minimum wage. For all of the workers who were making less than the existing minimum wage back then, who were making more than $15 an hour, who were misclassified as independent contractors, who were salaried, or who were unemployed, at best, would say, “that’s great, but it’s not relevant to me.”
This economic demand for $15 reinforced our divisions— along the lines of race, gender, legal status, and income level— and papered over the exploitation that long hours for some and no job for others promoted.
At the end of the day, our system is left intact— a system that casts immigrants as industrious cheap laborers and job stealers, a narrative that results in their experience of long-hour, highly exploitative workdays. Moreover, their bosses then can legitimately push citizen workers into the same conditions— or else, “why should I hire you if I can get these other workers for cheap?”
Even big corporations and the government get away with this by sub-contracting work, for instance, hiring immigrant day laborers to do the work that unionized construction workers used to do.
And the workers have their reasonings: I need a job, so I need to take what I can get. I need to keep my job, and my boss is threatening to lay people off if she needs to pay a higher minimum wage, so I won’t complain.
I need a job, so I need to take what I can get. I need to keep my job, and my boss is threatening to lay people off if she needs to pay a higher minimum wage, so I won’t complain.
Everyone thinks it’s someone else’s issue, and that we’re all competing against one another for a job. The 1% knows that it can extract more from us workers if we are divided and misguided to point fingers at one another as our competitors for jobs, resources, and services.
No wonder the ruling elites of all stripes are eager to provide minimum-wage increases! They count on appeasing a few by throwing a pittance that doesn’t even keep up with rising rents, bus fares, and food costs; and on slyly leaving most workers feeling like “why does someone else get a leg up, but not me?!”
Calls to raise minimum wage fortifies the fallacy that we are living under a democratic and just system. Only if we unite as a class, stressing our common interests, can we truly move forward to make demands and change the system to address all of our common needs.
Take Back Control of Our Work Time
What, then, would be a demand that will expose and challenge the system of exploitation and unite the working class— unemployed white Trump supporters, protesters who took part in Black Lives Matter, unionized Google workers, overworked bicycle delivery workers, gig workers, fast food workers?
Not to raise our nominal wages— but to take back control of our time by fighting against long hours of work.
Our system, of course, brainwashes us into thinking that working long hours is good— because you can make more money to support your family, buy more things, or get a promotion. Some of us might even maintain that higher wages can enable us to work less hours.
After all, who would want to work multiple jobs, day and night, if not driven by financial pressure?
But today's workers across income levels have been working longer hours— whether high-paid programmers or precarious food delivery drivers— despite steady increases in minimum wage.
It’s a myth that working longer hours will enrich workers as a class. It’s the opposite: we collectively get poorer. Karl Marx helped us to see that employers’ profit comes from the unpaid labor time: surplus value. The boss makes us work more hours in a day beyond the amount of wealth that we create that will cover the amount needed to feed and sustain us. It's the product of these extra hours that we work that is the boss' profit.
It’s a myth that working longer hours will enrich workers as a class. It’s the opposite: we collectively get poorer.
In fact, many will admit that long work hours have destroyed their health and taken time away from family and life in general.
Many women, especially housewives, give round-the-clock care for their children or aging parents but are considered “freeloaders” because they live on public benefits and not “working.” While unpaid, these forms of labor deserve to be recognized and valued by society.
Long hours also put workers into an unfair competition. On the one hand, women, immigrants, and workers of color are especially forced to work long hours at one or more jobs. On the other hand, when these workers are super-exploited by being forced to work long hours, other workers are shut out of a job or can’t get enough hours.
Socialists and progressives should know about the powerful attack on this system of exploitation that unified workers of all trades, including many immigrants, a century and a half ago with the 8-Hour Day movement.
Yet, Bernie, AOC, Howie Hawkins, unions like SEIU, and ones in NELP are advocating for minimum-wage increases, but not to stop long work hours. Don't tell me they have resigned themselves to the goal of “better-paid wage slave”! Or maybe they've bought into the idea of freedom of “choice”—freedom to work longer hours, freedom to work like a slave. Deep down, do they think that immigrants and people of color—especially women—should be grateful to be working long hours?
By focusing more on wage increases, rather than long hours and the control of time, the self-proclaimed progressives are upholding our system of exploitation that relies on such sexist and racist beliefs. It is, after all, against our interests to beg for a little relief that the ruling class will bestow upon us for sheer survival.
Instead of asking Biden for higher wages, we should be demanding our politicians for working people's real control over the means of production.
We need to build a new labor movement that puts upfront a political demand to end long work hours. Instead of asking Biden for higher wages, we should be demanding our politicians for working people's real control over the means of production—we should be fighting for our lives and futures.