Editor’s Note: The Rev. William Barber is president of Repairers of the Breach. Minister Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove is the author of “Revolution of Values.” The opinions expressed in this commentary are their own. View more opinion on CNN.
The Senate parliamentarian’s decision last week against including the increase in the minimum wage to $15 in the Covid-19 relief bill has forced a basic question before Democratic leadership to center stage: With control of both the House and the Senate, will they use the power they have to keep their promise to raise wages for poor and low-income people?
Though raising the minimum wage is supported by two thirds of Americans, corporate interests have successfully framed the issue as a give-and-take between better wages and fewer jobs. Democrats could take the side of workers – they have the power to override the parliamentarian and deliver on their promise. But they cannot do it without re-framing the fight for $15 as a moral issue.
We learned the Fight for $15 campaign’s power to re-frame this issue from the service workers who started it in New York City and SeaTac, Washington, in 2012. From the very beginning of their movement to challenge an economy that accepts extreme inequality, service workers invited preachers like us to join them as they walked off their jobs to demand higher wages and better working conditions. Their argument was simple: this wasn’t a debate about their needs versus the needs of their employers. It was about what kind of society we wanted to be.
Pastors, rabbis and imams were challenged to consider what our sacred texts and moral traditions say about paying just wages. The fight to increase the minimum wage was about more than poor people’s struggle to survive. It was also a moral struggle for a common life in which we do not rob God, as the biblical texts might have it, by exploiting low-income workers.
We know the distinctly American history of resistance to this way of framing living wages. During the 1930’s, the Social Gospel was a popular religious social reform movement in America and offered a moral framing for many of the reforms of the New Deal. Franklin D. Roosevelt adopted this moral argument when he declared that “no business which depends for its existence on paying less than living wages to its workers has any right to continue in this country.” Congress established a minimum wage in the midst of the Great Depression not because they reasoned that the workers’ demands outweighed the concerns of businesses, but because there was a consensus that it was wrong for anyone to work full time and not be able to feed their family.
But the moral traditions that built this common understanding came under attack. As Kevin Kruse documents in his book “One Nation Under God,” the National Association of Manufacturers organized corporate interests to invest in a broad-based campaign to teach Americans to re-read the Bible as an endorsement of free market libertarianism. The same people who vilified organized labor worked under the cover of a nonprofit organization called Spiritual Mobilization to delegitimize the Social Gospel and promote a civil religion that blamed poor people for their “laziness” or “lack of skills” while celebrating corporations as “job creators.”
This free market libertarianism still captivates the leadership of the Republican Party, which has touted the most extreme projection of job losses from the Congressional Budget Office’s report on the potential impact of raising the minimum wage and suggested, in the words of Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, that anything more than poverty-level unemployment benefits for service workers who have been hit hard by the pandemic would “discourage a return to work.” But the Fight for 15 has been successful in building a new public consensus over the past eight years. Last fall, when voters in Florida voted to re-elect the Republican incumbent, then-President Donald Trump, 61% of the same electorate also voted to raise the state’s minimum wage to $15.
Raising the minimum wage is not a “far left” or “liberal” issue. It is a moral issue that would, according to an analysis by the Economic Policy Institute, lift pay for up to 33 million low-wage workers— including nearly 40% of all African-American workers.
Just as the civil rights movement worked to shift decades-old debates over Jim Crow from a struggle between state’s rights and federal authority to a fundamental question of whether America was going to live up to the promises of its creeds, the Fight for 15 has built a consensus in America that income inequality isn’t just about workers’ rights. It’s about whether we will become a nation where all people’s dignity is recognized by just pay for honest work. If Democrats in Congress don’t do everything in their power to write this moral consensus into law, they will have a hard time making the case for poor and low-income voters to support them in 2022.