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$15: The New Eight-Hour Day

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FAST FOOD WORKERS CHICAGO
Scott Olson via Getty Images

When 200 New York City fast-food workers walked off their jobs in November 2012, their demand of $15 an hour seemed like a fantasy.

But over the weekend, as more than 1,000 fast-food workers from 50 cities gathered in Chicago for the first-ever nationwide fast-food workers convention, the workers' call for $15 looked prescient.

In a little less than two years, the call for $15 per hour has spread far beyond the fast-food industry -- indeed, in its power to inspire all low-wage workers, the "Fight for 15" is akin to the movement for the 8-hour day roughly two centuries ago.

While it's commonly taken for granted, today's standard 8-hour workday did not arrive by accident -- it began as a near-utopian demand from workers in industries like mining, construction, and manufacturing, where 15-hour days were the norm.

But under pressure from strikes that gradually spread across the country, a growing number of cities and companies began granting 8-hour workdays near the end of the 19th century -- and eventually, this standard 40-hour workweek was extended to workers nationwide. Under the Fair Labor Standards Act, signed into law by President Roosevelt in 1938.

The call for a $15 per hour wage similarly began as an over-the-horizon demand from fast-food workers stuck in jobs that offer no benefits, limited hours, and a median hourly wage of only $8.69 per hour. Today, however, following nearly two years of strikes by fast-food workers, low-wage workers of all types have taken up the call for $15 per hour -- and this growing movement is already getting results.

For example, in Baltimore earlier this month, service workers at Johns Hopkins Hospital reached a tentative agreement, after the threat of continued strikes, for a groundbreaking pay raise to $15 per hour. If finalized, this pay raise would substantially boost the wages of hundreds of low-paid janitors, cooks, housekeepers, and technicians, many of whom earn just above $10 per hour today.

In Michigan, hamburger chain Moo Cluck Moo raised wages to $15. And out west, workers in the Los Angeles Unified School System--the nation's second largest--just won a near doubling of their wages, to $15. Also in Los Angeles, a proposal to establish a $15 per hour minimum wage for hotel workers throughout the city won unanimous approval from the City Council's Economic Development Committee earlier this year, setting the stage for a vote in the full City Council in the coming months. Local leaders in LA credited the "tremendous energy" created by striking low-wage workers across the country in spurring progress on this proposal.

In November, voters in SeaTac, Washington approved the nation's first $15 minimum wage. And in June, the city of Seattle officially answered the rallying cry of fast food workers, approving the nation's first $15 citywide minimum wage. This historic development was followed just weeks later by the announcement of an agreement in San Francisco -- backed by local businesses -- to refer a measure setting a $15 citywide minimum wage to the city's voters this November.

It's not hard to understand why the Fight for 15 would inspire workers across the economy to take action. Much like the 15-hour days that characterized America's 19th-century industrial economy, stagnant wages and low pay are the "new normal" for millions of workers in the U.S.

For four decades wages have flat-lined even as worker productivity has continued to grow, and low-wage jobs now form the core of America's economy, comprising 8 of the 10 occupations with the largest projected growth over the next decade.

Looking ahead, we can ask: Which state will be the first to set a $15 minimum wage? Which big fast-food company will be the first to guarantee a minimum hourly wage that is double the industry standard? When can we expect to see a living wage become a core labor standard guaranteed to all workers across the country?

As fast-food workers gathered in Chicago to plot their next steps, one thing was clear: Their $15 demand could soon be as ordinary as the 8-hour day.

Jack Temple is a policy analyst at the National Employment Law Project.