Across the United States, the campaign for raising the minimum wage to 15 dollars is gaining momentum. From cities such as traditionally left wing Olympia, Washington, to more moderate Atlanta, Georgia, activists are pushing for better wages- and they’re starting to win the debate.
But will a higher minimum wage really change that much for the average American? It’s unlikely unless the struggle is broadened beyond the scope of the minimum wage in the United States. To explore this further, let’s start with a hypothetical future scenario of the results of the domestic struggle.
Once the groundswell of activism in favor of the 15-dollar minimum wage becomes too great to ignore, the concept will begin to be taken seriously by leading pundits. Leaders from Socialist Alternative, such as Seattle’s Kshama Sawant, will be ignored in the mainstream media.
Democratic politicians will offer tepid support for some larger raise in the minimum wage that won’t approach 15 dollars. Republicans and Fox News will be predictably rage filled at the prospect of this socialist project.
Inevitably, the call for a rise in the minimum wage will be too loud to ignore and shared by too large a portion of the US population, and political action of some kind will be taken. Inserted into whatever legislation is produced to hike up the minimum wage by however much it is hiked will be a caveat, added at the request of big business, that there not be a raise in the wage for the foreseeable future or some such profit protection.
In the aftermath of the law’s passage, prices will be increased more than needed to cover the wage under the cover of doing just that and those companies that decried the raise will be more profitable than ever. They also, most likely, will have massive subsidies in place to offset their “losses” from having to pay a livable wage as a concession from Congress for treating them so badly.
Even in the unlikely event the capitalist class can’t use subsidies and price increases on the domestic front to make up the profits, and probably even if they can, the squeezing of the international source suppliers will surely continue as well. Profits will be extracted and expanded at any cost.
No matter if things come to pass exactly in this way or not, American capital will not allow its profits to decline due to a wage increase for its workers in America. That much is clear.
Given the historical record of the reactions to possibilities for wealth declination for the rich and moneyed classes in America, a 15-dollar minimum wage will not be a magical salve with which the working class can heal the national wounds of unrestricted, rampant capital.
In every instance that labor has challenged capital in the past century, capital has eventually won out. Whether it’s the rolling back of the mild protections for the working class of the New Deal or the breaking of the unions under Reagan, capital has won far more battles than it has lost.
In fact, many battles “lost” by capital in the last century have since been “won”- it’s not an overstatement to say that the country is at a similar level of economic stratification that it was in the Gilded Age. If you take one step forward for every two steps back enough times, you’ll end up behind where you started.
In that context, then, the fight for the 15-dollar minimum wage needs to be seen as part of a larger struggle. Fighting for the right to have access, through one’s pay, to the necessities of life is important. No less important is ensuring that the power of capital to enforce its will upon the working class is severely curtailed.
The results of a successful fight for a higher minimum wage in the United States for the average American, then, will be positive for a limited time. Soon after any victory, the gains will fall apart in the face of the push of capital to wrench its profits from the working class. This is inevitable as long as capital is allowed to set the rules of engagement for the contest.
The struggle for equality and worker’s rights needs to be seen in a global context. The time when the Western working class could solve its problems without acknowledging the global struggle- if that time ever existed- is long over. Fighting for a higher wage in the United States must be accompanied by fighting for better working conditions and wages globally.
Eoin Higgins is a writer and historian from upstate New York. He is a recent graduate of the Masters in History program at Fordham University’s Graduate School of Arts and Sciences. You can find his work at https://medium.com/@Catharticme and follow him on twitter @CatharticMe