Shirin, a long-time West Philadelphia resident, waited outside City Hall yesterday to attend a hearing on raising the minimum wage.
“All my life I’ve worked for minimum wage,” said Shirin, who declined to give her last name so as not to alienate future employers.
Over the last 30 years, she has worked as a restaurant worker, bicycle messenger, receptionist and clerk, never getting over $10 an hour.
She held a handmade sign close to her chest that read “I am for $15.”
A line of people waiting to be checked into City Hall held similar signs, each emblazoned with the number 15.
That number has become a rallying cry for a grassroots movement to raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour across the country. The City Council hearing marked the beginning a formal conversation about the issue here in Philadelphia.
Behind the push to hold the hearing is the group 15 Now Philadelphia, a local chapter of a national organization, which came to Philadelphia a year ago. Since then, it has run a crowdfunding campaign, launched neighborhood action groups and participated in a number of protests and events.
In the last City Council session of 2014, a resolution introduced by Councilman Kenyatta Johnson of the 2nd District passed that authorized a hearing to discuss raising the minimum wage.
The current state minimum wage, which is the same as the federal minimum wage, is $7.25 an hour. This is significantly lower than what is considered a living wage — a term widely defined as the amount a person needs to pay for shelter, food and other necessities. The living wage for Philadelphia is $10.09 an hour for a single adult, according to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Living Wage Calculator.
Line of people waiting to enter hearing
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Johnson has publicly supported the idea of raising the minimum wage, but he has stopped short of proposing legislation. In part, this is due to a clause in the state minimum wage law, last modified in 2006, that preempts local ordinances. This is being interpreted as meaning municipalities can’t override the state minimum wage, even if they intend to raise it.
“It’s been hard to get anyone on the record to say they support a $15 an hour minimum wage in Philadelphia, because they’re all able to say ‘we can’t raise the minimum wage here, so it doesn’t matter,’” said Kate Goodman, a lead organizer for 15 Now Philly.
“What we’re trying to do is raise the issue and say that they’re are things you can do now to get rid of the preemption,” she added.
15 Now Philly organizer and union activist Justin Harrison told Generocity.org some of the group’s goals for City Council:
- a resolution supporting $15 an hour minimum wage
- a resolution to support low wage workers fighting for higher wages and the ability to unionize
- a Home Rule Charter amendment on the November ballot calling for a $15 an hour minimum wage
- the immediate raise to $15 an hour minimum wage for city worker
These goals are intended as actions City Council can do now — although they are mostly symbolic. In the long term, 15 Now Philly is taking aim at the preemption clause, and Goodman said the group plans to organize around the upcoming Supreme Court elections.
“Courts will respond to public pressure, and so we think we could get the Supreme Court to rule favorably,” she said.
Goodman added that there is also legislation in the works at the state level to get rid of the preemption clause, although it has not yet been announced yet.
A number of supporters came out to the hearing, including academics, students, low wage workers, religious leaders and union representatives. Jerry Jordan, president of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, also testified in support.
At the hearing, opponents of raising the minimum wage were quiet, although Harrison fully expects them to chime in as the effort continues.
“We expect strong opposition from the Chamber of Commerce and the major employers of this city to raising the wage,” Harrison said. “They will make the same tired ‘predictions’ about raising the wage that are always made: that it will lead to job loss and economic catastrophe.”
(The Chamber of Commerce was not able to be reached for comment by the time this article was published).
Harrison also said he anticipates considerable resistance at the state level to lifting the preemption cause. He pointed to a report from the Guardian that obtained strategic details of a plan by the American Legislative Exchange Council, a national conservative lobbying group, to lobby in state capitals for laws that reduce the ability of localities to set their own minimum wage.
What’s at stake if the minimum wage is left untouched? For Shirin, who is now unemployed, it comes down to whether it’s even worth it to return to the workforce.
A $15 an hour minimum wage “would urge me more to re-enter the workforce,” she said. “I probably make just a few dollars more working for minimum wage than I would get from my Social Security.”
Photos via Alex Vuocolo-30-
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