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Labor coalition calls for minimum wage higher than $15 per hour

Analysis: With $15 minimum wage campaign gaining political traction, group says workers need more for a living wage

As the nationwide campaign for a $15 hourly minimum wage gains traction, some labor groups have set their sights on an even higher number: $16.87 — a demand that could help push the $15 figure closer to the mainstream of American politics.

A new report, published Tuesday, from the Alliance for a Just Society, a coalition of labor organizations, argues that $15 an hour is less than a living wage in most states. A single, childless adult earning $15 per hour would still not be able to make ends meet in 34 states and the District of Columbia, Alliance for a Just Society researcher Allyson Fredericksen found.

She estimated that the true nationwide living wage for a single adult — based on a weighted average of wages in each state — is $16.87 per hour. At the low end of the spectrum, the report found Arkansas to have a living wage of $14.26 an hour; D.C. was had the highest living wage, $21.86 an hour.

The estimates in this report are significantly higher than those of the frequently cited MIT Living Wage Calculator, largely because of Fredericksen’s more expansive assumptions regarding what workers need as a minimum living standard. (MIT assumed that a studio apartment is the minimum housing requirement for a single adult, for example, while Fredericksen assumed a one-bedroom.) 

But the alliance’s demand for a $16.87 minimum may serve a political purpose, by positioning $15 as a compromise.

While unimaginable in most parts of the country until a few years ago, $15 minimum wage legislation has spread across the country. In 2013, SeaTac, Washington, became the first city in the nation to approve a law gradually raising its minimum wage to $15 per hour; Seattle followed in 2014.

Various other cities have stepped up since then, including Los Angeles and San Francisco. New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo is pushing for the first statewide $15 minimum legislation.

Meanwhile, two 2016 Democratic presidential candidates — Martin O’Malley and Bernie Sanders — have endorsed a federal $15 minimum wage, though front-runner Hillary Clinton has not.

The alliance’s report arrives the same day that the Democratic presidential candidates will hold their first televised debate. Clinton, who has spent much of her campaign courting labor groups, is likely to face pressure from O’Malley and Sanders over her lack of support for a nationwide $15 minimum wage.

Alliance for a Just Society’s backers include Working Washington, one of the groups that campaigned for a $15 wage in Seattle, and Restaurant Opportunities Center United, which supported Cuomo’s efforts to institute a $15 minimum wage for New York fast-food workers.

Activists demanding $15 an hour have successfully pressured the White House and congressional Democrats to raise the bar on their minimum wage proposals — not quite to $15 but from $10.10 to $12.

Opponents of a federal $15 minimum wage often argue that it would have the unintended consequence of reducing employment. Former White House economic adviser Alan Krueger wrote in a Sunday New York Times opinion piece that although “some high-wage cities and states could probably absorb a $15-an-hour minimum wage with little or no job loss, it is far from clear that the same could be said for every state, city and town in the United States.”

A hike to $12 an hour, on the other hand, “would do more good than harm for low-wage workers,” he wrote.

David Cooper, an analyst for the labor-friendly Economic Policy Institute, told Al Jazeera that raising the minimum wage to $15 or beyond might be difficult to implement because, in inflation-adjusted terms, it has been allowed to decline so far from its 1968 peak. But there are other ways to raise wages at the low end of the economic ladder, he said. In particular, he highlighted the apparent pay-boosting effects of giving workers more power in setting their own compensation.

“The minimum wage is really a substitute for the lack of bargaining power among low-wage workers,” he said. “If we could increase unionization rates for those workers, then increasing the minimum wage wouldn’t be as necessary."

Boosting unionization rates is also among the recommendations included in the Alliance for a Just Society report.

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