Last week Philadelphia overwhelmingly voted in support of a $15/hour minimum wage. Specifically, voters backed a call on the state government to either (1) raise the minimum wage in Pennsylvania to $15/hour, or (2) finally allow Philadelphia to raise it on our own (currently state law maintains a “pre-emption clause” which prevents municipal governments from setting their own minimum wage). All four questions on the ballot passed on Tuesday, but this one had the most support with 82% voting yes.

In the poorest large city in the nation, the vast majority of people can at least agree on one thing: wages are far too low. Philadelphia’s poverty rate has remained steady at 26% for five years, and the deep poverty rate is actually increasing. These statistics of course do not include people whose income is just above the poverty line (anything over $24,600 for a family of four), or people who may have a higher income but are still struggling to make ends meet due to unbearably high levels of debt and ever-rising costs of healthcare, housing, and education.

This is a big symbolic win, showing that the will of the working class is unified in the fight for better wages. But what does the passage of this referendum really mean for our city? Unfortunately the ballot question was non-binding, meaning it doesn’t concretely change anything for us unless further action is taken at various levels of government.

No Trust in the Democrats

Back in 2014, SEIU’s FightFor15 banner and Socialist Alternative’s 15Now campaign organized a movement of low wage workers, students, and others to fight for better wages in our city. 15Now aimed to defy the unjust pre-emption with a ballot referendum, which would demonstrate the huge popular support for 15. The same Democrat-dominated City Council which voted to put that question on the ballot this year, in June 2015 blocked the exact same question from ever reaching the polls. It was a clear effort to take the wind out of the sails of the movement and silence public debate about wages.

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Council President Darrell Clarke tabled the same popular $15/hr ballot question in 2015
(Photo via Philly.com)

Has the local Democratic party machine suddenly had a change of heart? Hardly. While the Democrats on City Council have been enjoying six figure salaries for the last five years, many working class Philadelphians have been going hungry, cold, sick, and homeless, struggling with increased cost of living and stagnating wages. Local Democrats have decided the time is ripe to score some progressive points by hopping on the bandwagon, but only after $15 has been fought for and won in dozens of other cities and states, becoming a litmus test for political figures to remain relevant.

In the 2015 mayoral election, five of the six candidates in the Democratic Party primary campaigned on their support for 15, with radio and TV ads trying one-up each other on their level of support. And yet, here we are in 2019, still with a rock-bottom minimum wage of $7.25. Mayor Kenney’s vocal support has translated into pitifully few concrete improvements for Philadelphians. Instead, he’s taken a sluggish approach lacking the fight needed to defeat the opponents of $15. It took Kenney three long years in office to sign the “21st Century Minimum Wage” bill last December, bringing $15 to city workers and contractors by 2022, when it should have been his very first move. City Council is entertaining a voluntary “wage certification” program, which would award Philadelphia companies who pay a living wage with a special accreditation, that will supposedly make their brands more marketable. This is not a serious approach to addressing the crisis of poverty in our city.

On the state level Governor Wolf has recently come out with a plan to raise the state minimum wage to $12 immediately, and to $15 by 2025. His plan also includes ending the outrageously low sub-minimum wage for tipped workers, and implementing an annual cost of living adjustment so that the minimum wage will continue to rise with inflation. His plan does not, however, include a repeal of the preemption. We welcome all the positive aspects of this proposal, though by 2025 it will be far too little, too late. Furthermore, state Republicans have made it clear that while they are now open to discussing a modest minimum wage hike, $15 is a non-starter.

Without a state-wide mass movement, Wolf’s plan doesn’t stand a chance of passing through the state legislature. The final result will undoubtedly be a watered-down bill filled with loopholes, bowing to the interests of big business. Democratic politicians are willing to put on a show of fighting the good fight, it seems, only when they are years late to the party, and have a small chance of actually winning.

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15Now activists in Philly building the movement

We need leaders who won’t hesitate to confront the big business interests which rely on poverty wages to expand their profit margins, and who know how to tap into the immense power of the working class to win. With no real mechanism to hold them accountable, there is simply no reason to believe that Democratic Party politicians will go up to bat against Republicans, and big business interests, and conservative elements in their own party, to make the $15 minimum wage a reality.

How Do We Win?

Philadelphia is the economic powerhouse of the state. The working class in this city has the power to stop business as usual and exert real pressure on both city and state legislators. We must build a broad movement of working class people throughout our state, across all differences, in order to force a repeal of the preemption and win 15 statewide, without a six year phase-in.

On the local level we should also demand that Council pass binding legislation to immediately raise Philadelphia’s minimum wage to at least $15, as soon as the state-wide preemption is repealed. To achieve the level of public pressure required to move elected officials, we will need the full support of unions, many of whom have supported pro-$15 politicians. Rank and file union members can encourage their leadership to use their immense economic power to fight for 15 in a sustained and coordinated way, threatening strikes and direct action alongside more at-risk nonunion workers.

It sometimes feels like the minimum wage movement has left Philadelphia behind. Of the top fifteen largest cities in the country, all have a higher minimum wage than we do, except for the ones located in Texas. On January 1st of 2019, minimum wage increases in 20 states and 24 cities went into effect, giving raises to hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of people. Workers in our state were not affected. But the fight for higher wages, and more broadly for fair compensation and workers’ rights, continues on. It is the job of the working class: all progressives, labor unions, and people who care about justice, to bring this struggle into our workplaces, our communities, and the halls of power.