President Biden’s endorsement heats up a fight for $15 minimum wage
Biden signs an executive order
(CNN) — After two decades working for Walmart, Cynthia Murray says she only recently saw her pay go above $15 an hour.
“They gave me a 30 cents raise,” she said. “That’s how you feel about me after 20 years?”
But Murray, a 64-year-old founding member of the United for Respect labor rights group, says she and fellow activists are fired up after President Joe Biden put pressure on Congress last week to lift the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour.
“There should be a national minimum wage of $15 an hour,” Biden said during his first address to a joint session of Congress on April 28. “Nobody working 40 hours a week should be living below the poverty line.”
The President also signed an executive order raising the minimum hourly rate for for federal contractors to $15 by 2022.
“If Biden understands this is something that really needs to change for our economy, that says volumes to me,” Murray said.
Labor activists, energized by the President’s $15 minimum wage endorsement are planning demonstrations across the United States to build more momentum for the policy proposal.
Walmart under pressure
United for Respect is planning to host at least two virtual events ahead of Walmart’s annual shareholder meeting on June 2, according to the group’s corporate accountability director Bianca Agustin.
Walmart’s minimum wage is $11 an hour — still well above the federal minimum of $7.25.
In February, the company said it would increase wages for some of its estimated 1.6 million employees to bring its average hourly wage up to $15. But labor activists say that commitment still leaves hundreds of thousands of full and part-time Walmart workers earning less than they need to provide for themselves and their families.
“By our estimate there are still nearly 800,000 associates who are still making less than $15,” Agustin told CNN Business.
Walmart says it supports raising the federal minimum wage, but declined to say whether it supports raising it to $15 an hour.
“Walmart has invested more than $5 billion in increased pay, expanded health benefits, and a debt-free college program over the past five years,” the company said. “Our starting rate is more than 50% higher than the federal minimum wage, which Washington hasn’t changed in more than a decade.”
Fast food workers’ strike
McDonald’s is also facing renewed pressure after Biden’s address.
Some of the chain’s corporate and franchise workers plan to go on strike May 19 to urge the company to raise its minimum wage to at least $15 an hour.
The demonstrations, organized by the fast food labor advocacy group Fight for $15 and a Union, are set to take place in at least 15 cities the day before McDonald’s shareholder meeting on Thursday. The strike is receiving additional support from the Service Employees International Union, which represents about 2 million health care, public services and property service workers across the country.
“Last year, in the middle of a global pandemic, McDonald’s made $5 billion and gave billions to its shareholders — all while workers like me risked our lives to keep stores running for less than $15 an hour,” St. Louis McDonald’s employee Hakim Dumkia said in a statement to CNN Business. “We supported McDonald’s through the pandemic, and now you need to pay us enough to support our families and our communities.”
McDonald’s USA said the responsibility to set a minimum wage lies with the local and federal government.
“We’re open to dialogue so that any changes meet the needs of thousands of hardworking restaurant employees and the 2,000 McDonald’s independent owner/operators who run small businesses,” the company said in email.
‘Pay workers better’
The United Food and Commercial Workers Union is also speaking out on the issue.
“UFCW is calling on Congress to act on these priorities and deliver the strong support and protections America’s essential workers need as Covid cases continue to endanger those on the front lines across the country,” the union’s president, Marc Perrone, said in a statement. “Every worker should be paid a $15 minimum wage, and essential frontline workers also need hazard pay for the enormous health and safety risks they continue face during this pandemic.”
The issue of pandemic-related hazard pay is still a thorny one for many service sector employers. Last month, Murray, the Walmart associate, introduced a shareholder resolution to form a pandemic taskforce council that includes input from hourly workers the next time a disease like Covid spreads across the country.
“Pay workers better so if they do become sick they can afford to take those days off,” Murray said.
Murray said she wished Biden would just increase the federal minimum wage via executive order, but she also called on Congress to follow the President’s lead.
“It’s time they get off their butts in Congress and work for the people,” she said. “We’re tired of being working poor.”
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