Another battle was fought in the Fight for $15 on Thursday. Low-wage workers, mostly in the fast-food industry, and their supporters took to the streets in as many as 100 cities across the United States to argue their case for higher wages and the right to unionize.
Thursday’s protests are the latest in a series of demonstrations organized by a loose network of community organizers and national unions, chief among which may be the Service Employees International Union. Advocacy groups have rallied behind low-wage workers who claim that the current federal minimum wage ($7.15 per hour) is too low to live off of, and that employers have punished or fired workers who have attempted to unionize in an effort to better work conditions.
It’s hard to address all of the concerns of these workers at once. Although they are united under the same banner, there is a lot of variance in minimum-wage laws by state and even by city. The minimum wage debate can be boiled down to a living wage debate, which in turn can be boiled down to a cost of living debate.
With this in mind, the banner of “Fight for $15″ seem somewhat arbitrary. More than doubling the minimum wage across the board — besides being dense with dubious economic implications — does not address the core problem, which is that over time the cost of living will increase inexorably. As it stands, there is no mechanism to address this, meaning that inflation alone will make any static minimum wage obsolete in a matter of time.
From here, the problem appears simple. If the cost of living has outpaced the minimum wage, how do we determine what an acceptable minimum wage is for the current cost of living? Once there, index that wage to inflation.
It’s easy on paper — or, perhaps, just in theory. This dramatically simplified version of the situation takes a few things for granted. One, there is intense disagreement over whether or not workers in the United States should be guaranteed a living wage at all. President Barack Obama and much of the Democratic party are in favor of establishing a living wage floor, but many do not agree with this perspective. Such wage controls could jeopardize the market mechanism — or, more simply, cannot be afforded by many minimum- and low-wage employers.