One of the biggest U.S. labor unions launched a television ad campaign Tuesday in support of a $15 minimum wage for the state of New York, a move that could help build momentum for nationwide increases.
Service Employees International Union (SEIU), which counts nearly 2 million members and has been the main institutional backer of low-wage workers’ Fight for $15 protests, opened the campaign by unveiling a 30-second spot that praises New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo for his efforts to raise the state’s minimum wage.
Several major U.S. cities — including Los Angeles, the second-most-populous in the nation, behind New York — have adopted a $15 minimum wage over the past two years, but no state has yet done so. A statewide increase in New York would be a major victory for SEIU and the Fight for $15 campaign, which has spent the past three years organizing low-wage workers in fast food and other industries around wages and union recognition.
Cuomo announced his support for a statewide $15 minimum wage last week during a public event celebrating a similar wage increase applying specifically to the fast-food industry. A state Wage Board convened by the governor was able to set a $15 minimum wage for fast-food restaurants, but extending the increase across all industries would require legislative approval.
New York's minimum wage is $8.75 per hour and will automatically increase to $9 at the end of the year. The increase approved by the Wage Board will phase in a $15 minimum wage for New York City fast-food workers by the end of 2018, with the rest of the state catching up by 2021.
Cuomo acknowledged SEIU’s support for raising the minimum wage in his speech last week, saying, “We would not be here today without [SEIU President] Mary Kay Henry, SEIU and their leadership.” The SEIU’s ad campaign kicked off by hailing the his efforts.
“His father [former New York Gov. Mario Cuomo] used to say, ‘The best exercise for the heart is reaching down to lift someone up.’ Gov. [Andrew] Cuomo followed that proud legacy by raising the minimum wage for New York’s fast-food workers,” the narrator says in the new SEIU ad. “Now he’s going to do it for every minimum wage worker in the state. It’s the right thing. It’s the fair thing.”
It is not known what other steps SEIU will take to back the statewide $15 campaign; Fight for $15 has turned out grass-roots workers and supporters to rally in support of the wage board increase.
A statewide increase to $15 would likely add momentum to other wage-raising drives on the regional and federal levels. Fight for $15 and SEIU affiliates are running minimum-wage campaigns in municipalities and counties across the United States; in Washington, D.C., members of the Congressional Progressive Caucus (CPC), a close ally of the Fight for $15 campaign, have introduced federal legislation that would raise the federal minimum wage to $15.
That legislation is not likely to make its way into law — particularly not while Republicans hold the majority in the House and the Senate. Nor is a slightly weaker bill, which is supported by the White House and would raise the federal minimum wage to $12 per hour, likely to reach enactment.
But Democrats appear to have coalesced around support for significant wage increases as a political mobilization tactic, using wage hike proposals to energize labor activists and appeal to the party’s base.
Vice President Joe Biden, who is said to be contemplating running for the 2016 Democratic presidential nomination, was on hand when Cuomo announced his support for a $15 minimum wage last week. After being introduced by the governor, Biden reiterated the White House’s support for a $12 federal minimum and praised wage increases in general on the principle that “when we treat people decently, everything goes up.”
“By raising the minimum wage for food workers in New York, you’re not just doing it in New York,” Biden said. “You’re going to make every single governor in every single state look at themselves. I mean it. It’s going to have a profound impact. You’re leading the way for the country.”