Supporters of the campaign to raise the federal minimum wage to $15 hour said they considered the latest Republican presidential primary debate a win for their effort because of the national attention it brought to the concerns of low-wage workers.
The latest televised GOP skirmish, which took place Tuesday night in Milwaukee, came just hours after low-wage workers around the country launched the latest in a series of nationwide protests and work stoppages, demanding union recognition and an hourly minimum wage of $15. Asked about the second of those demands, the leading Republican candidates all said they opposed raising the federal minimum wage above its current level of $7.25 an hour.
Nonetheless, Fight for $15 — the campaign behind the protests — declared victory. That the protests even came up within the first minutes of the debate proved that low-wage workers are a “powerful voting bloc,” striking fast-food worker Jihad Williamson said in a statement issued by the campaign.
“In the first question of the Republican debate, candidates were forced to respond to our calls for $15 and union rights, because there’s a growing understanding in America that $15 an hour is what American workers everywhere need to survive and support our families,” said Williamson, a McDonald’s employee in Milwaukee and a Fight for $15 member. “We are changing the politics of our nation."
Leading Republican candidate Donald Trump said during the debate that wages are too high and are making the United States less competitive on the global market.
“I hate to say it, but we have to leave it the way it is,” Trump said. “People have to go out, they have to work really hard, and they have to get into that stratum. But we cannot do this [raise the minimum wage] if we are going to compete with the rest of the world. We just can’t do it.”
“Every time we raise the minimum wage, the number of jobless people increases,” said Ben Carson, who is neck and neck with Trump in recent national polls.
Multiple news outlets, including the fact-checking website PolitiFact, characterized Carson’s statement as false. The Associated Press noted that unemployment declined shortly after minimum wage hikes in 1996 and 1997.
Lawrence Mishel, the president of the labor-friendly Economic Policy Institute, said the most recent Republican debate confirmed his belief that “the next presidential election is going to have, as a major element, a debate about who can generate wage growth for the vast majority.”
The GOP candidates’ opposition to raising the minimum wage “definitely won’t play well to a general election voter pool,” he said.
Democrats, who traditionally enjoy closer ties to organized labor, have embraced the Fight for $15 protests. The top three Democratic presidential hopefuls — Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders and Martin O’Malley — all expressed their support for the protests earlier in the day. Sanders and O’Malley have said they support raising the federal minimum wage to $15; Clinton endorsed a proposal to raise the wage to $12.
Other prominent Democrats have also latched onto the $15 rallying cry as a means to curry favor with organized labor and the party’s left wing. New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo has frequently clashed with progressive activists in his party, but in recent months he has embraced their call for a $15 minimum wage.
In September a state wage board that he set up ruled in favor of a statewide $15 minimum wage for fast food-workers. On Tuesday he addressed a crowd of Fight for $15 protesters in New York City and announced he would raise the minimum wage for state employees to $15 an hour.