Justin Miller

 Justin Miller is a writing fellow for The American Prospect.

Recent Articles

Dems Are Divided on Minimum Wage. But That's Not Bad News

Last week, Bernie Sanders and other leaders of the Congressional Progressive Caucus introduced legislation that would raise the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour by 2020. The bill is not only the most ambitious wage hike legislation to come from the left, but it’s also indicative of the growing influence that the national Fight for $15 movement exerts over Washington’s political discourse.

Not all Democrats support such a big increase to the nation’s minimum wage. The $15 proposal notably abandons the mainstream party line that was established a couple of months ago when Senator Patty Murray and Representative Robert Scott introduced a bill to raise the federal minimum wage to $12 an hour. Democratic Senate leaders Harry Reid and Chuck Schumer, along with a number of other prominent Democrats, came out in strong support of the hike.

As late as last week, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi had also voiced support for the party line on minimum wage: “With this one act, we could give a raise to more than 25 million working people, lift up to 4.5 million Americans out of poverty and generate some $22 billion in increased economic activity.”

But just yesterday, The Hill reports, Pelosi announced that though it’s not politically possible now, she supports raising the minimum wage to $15. “Twelve dollars may be what can pass, but I’m for $15 per hour,” Pelosi told reporters. Her unexpected move signals the growing populist influence of both the progressive caucus in Congress and the rhetoric surrounding the Fight for $15.

According to The Hill, an economic adviser to Obama said that his current support for a $12 minimum wage is unaltered—though it’s worth noting that throughout his tenure, his minimum wage platform has ballooned from $9, to $10.10, and most recently to $12. As I wrote last week, progressive labor advocates are now pushing Obama to build on his 2014 executive order that raised the minimum wage to $10.10 for federal contract workers and sign a new order that pushes that up to $15.

Hillary Clinton has so far declined to endorse of a national $15 minimum wage, indicating that while she supports such a wage in cities with higher costs of living she doesn’t believe that it can work everywhere. “I support the local efforts that are going on that are making it possible for people working in certain localities to actually earn $15,” Clinton told Buzzfeed News a couple weeks ago.

As former White House economist Jared Bernstein told the New York Times, “There could be quite large shares of workers affected, and research doesn’t have a lot to say about that… [W]e have to be less certain about the outcome.”

Still, there’s a strong body of economic research that shows the economy can sustain modest wage increases—to $12 an hour for instance—spread out over multiple years would create little to no job loss. The thinking behind the $12 minimum wage proposal is that it fully restores the purchasing power of the wage floor back to its peak in the 1960s. The bill also indexes the wage, once raised, to cost-of-living increases, and it would phase out the minimum wage for tipped workers.

And many economists believe we could go further. Last week, a group of 200 economists came out in support of the $15 an hour minimum wage legislation, stating: “We recognize that raising the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour as of 2020 would entail an increase that is significantly above the typical pattern with federal minimum wage increases. Nevertheless, through a well-designed four-year phase-in process, businesses will be able to absorb the cost increases through modest increases in prices and productivity as well as enabling low-wage workers to receive a slightly larger share of businesses’ total revenues.”

Raising the minimum wage at least somewhat is a wildly popular idea for most Americans. According to a January 2014 Pew poll, 73 percent of Americans—including 53 percent of Republicans—supported raising the minimum wage from its current level of $7.25 to $10.10 an hour. 

While the political pathway for a $15 national minimum wage is blocked for now, the proposal gives the $12 minimum wage push greater momentum. “It’s certainly pushing the envelope but it also broadens the terrain of what’s possible. Pushing for $15 makes $12 easier to pass,” says Amy Traub, as senior policy analyst for Demos.

Zephyr Teachout on Getting Big Money Out of Politics

Zephyr Teachout talks Citizens United, public financing, and her new role heading Lawrence Lessig's Mayday PAC. 

AP Photo/Mike Groll
AP Photo/Mike Groll Activist Zephyr Teachout speaks during a news conference on Wednesday, December 3, 2014, in Albany, New York. I n 2014, the campaign finance reform activist and Harvard Professor Lawrence Lessig launched Mayday PAC —the super PAC to end super PACs. The group raised about $11 million and targeted support for candidates who were committed to reforming the role of money in politics. While its efforts in the 2014 election were largely unsuccessful, Lessig did succeed in jumpstarting a conversation about how to combat the private campaign financing of our elected officials, and more recently, the scourge of unlimited outside spending a la Citizens United . On Monday, it was announced that law professor and progressive firebrand Zephyr Teachout will be taking over the reins as Mayday plots its strategy for a 2016 election that will likely unleash an unprecedented amount of money. Most recently, Teachout challenged Democratic incumbent Andrew Cuomo for the New York State...

Federal Contract Workers Are Demanding a Big Raise. But Will They Get It?

The Fight for $15 comes to Washington. 

Good Jobs Now
Good Jobs Nation J ust outside the U.S. Capitol on Wednesday, hundreds of workers wearing blue shirts that said "Strike!" rallied for more pay. Leaders led chants in English and Spanish, from "Hey, hey, ho, ho, $10.10 is way too low," to " ¿ Que queremos? Quince y un uni ó n ." These workers were striking for a day against companies contracted by the federal government to ring up powerful politicians’ lunch orders in the Senate, clean offices in the Pentagon, and cook food at the Smithsonian museums. As the Fight for $15 has gained traction across the United States, workers—supported by a coalition of unions, labor advocates, and politicians—are saying that it’s time for the federal government to become a model employer. A cadre of progressive politicians, including Senator Bernie Sanders, also used the event to introduce legislation that calls for a national $15 minimum wage. But with legislative success along those lines unlikely, advocates are calling on President Obama to take...

From L.A. to New York (and in Between), $15 Moves Forward

From the West Coast to the East Coast, this has been a good week for the burgeoning Fight for $15 campaign.

On Tuesday, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors voted to raise its minimum wage to $15 by 2020 for those who work in the unincorporated areas of the county. This comes on the heels of the same wage hike for workers in the City of Los Angeles passed by the city council back in May.

As the Los Angeles Times reports, the move will likely spur a few of the 86 smaller cities in the county to pass their own minimum wage hikes as well as increase pressure to put municipal wage initiatives onto the 2016 ballot.

Also in California, the University of California system (headed by former Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano) announced that it will increase the minimum wage to $15 over the next three years. The move will give a raise to 3,200 direct UC employees in addition to several thousand contracted workers.

On the opposite side of the country, a much-anticipated announcement came down on Wednesday in New York state. The wage board charged with recommending a wage policy for the state’s fast food workers sent their decision to Governor Andrew Cuomo: raise their wages to $15

"Today, hundreds of thousands of working men and women across New York State will celebrate as their call for 15 and a union has been heard," said SEIU 32BJ President Hector Figueroa.

There was another wage victory last week in Kansas City, which is considered a case study in whether or not such a substantial minimum wage increase is feasible in a smaller city. While not quite $15, the city council overwhelmingly voted to raise its minimum wage to $13 an hour (though there’s an exemption for teenage entry-level workers).

In the nation’s capital, council members gave the go-ahead for a 2016 ballot initiative on a $15 minimum wage.

In national news, legislation was introduced on Wednesday by Senator Bernie Sanders and a cadre of progressive House members that would raise the national minimum wage to $15 an hour. Though it’s incredibly infeasible politically, it’s noteworthy that the Fight For $15 campaign has officially crossed the threshold into the U.S. Capitol. It’s also an ambitious departure from more modest Democratic minimum wage proposals in the past.

All in all, it has been a highly successful week for minimum wage campaigns around the country. 

In Latest Adjunct Organizing Victory, Barnard Faculty Plan to Unionize

More than 230 contingent faculty members at Barnard College will be able to vote to form a union with the United Auto Workers Local 2110 this September, according to an announcement today. Last month, contingent faculty filed for a union with the NLRB after the UAW said more than two-thirds of contingents had petitioned in support. The Barnard College administration, however, contested the right of full-time and part-time contingent faculty to be in the same unit.

After the NLRB hearings ended last week, the college agreed to sign an election agreement that permits a union for all contingent faculty except for a small subset of full-timers who have supervisory roles. Barnard College’s President Debora Spar said in a statement that the administration “fully supports the right of these contingent faculty to make a decision for themselves and without interference.”

“We commend the College for reaching this election agreement with us rather than engaging in unnecessary conflict," said Julie Kushner, director of UAW Region 9A, which includes New England, New York City, and Puerto Rico. “We are encouraged by the growing number of employers who have been working out neutrality agreements such as this one. All workers deserve the right to choose unionization without influence from their employers.”

“This is a positive step forward for faculty,” adjunct lecturer Siobhan Burke said in a statement. “A union will give us a voice in our employment conditions. By lessening the precariousness of our economic situation as employees, it will allow us to stay focused on our role as educators.”

While not typically thought of as a higher education union, the United Auto Workers is one of a handful of non-traditional education unions—including SEIU and United Steelworkers—that has been active in adjunct organizing in recent years. For more on the range of union organizing strategies within the burgeoning adjunct movement, read my in-depth exploration: “When Adjuncts Go Union.”

UAW’s Region 9A has been particularly successful with higher education organizing. Most notably, it has organized contingent faculty at The New School, New York University, and Goddard College. It’s also had success getting contracts for graduate assistants at New York University since 2002 and has long been working to organize grad students at Columbia University. Recently, more than 2,000 graduate workers at the University of Connecticut won union recognition.

There are a number of other schools in the region with adjuncts and graduate workers who are actively reaching out to UAW for organizing support.

Given the early support that Barnard adjuncts have shown for unionization, it’s likely that the September vote will pass. What remains to be seen is how much the union can get in concessions from the college in terms of pay increases, job stability, and health benefits. It’s worth noting that some of the biggest contract wins for adjuncts have come from wealthy universities like Tufts, Northeastern, and Boston University. Barnard College, a women’s liberal arts college in New York City that has long been affiliated with Columbia University, might just be able to dole out a generous contract. 

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