by Spencer Brown
Kolt Day’s latest Activist blog post, A Leftist Case Against the Federal Minimum Wage, makes some provocative, and also some correct, points. However, as an organizer on the Fight for $15 campaign in Boston, I cannot help but think that the overall message is ultimately misguided. Here I will be speaking not just from my experience as a union organizer working with low-wage communities that are mainly immigrant and/or of color, but also as a DSA member and a committed socialist.
So the question I am raising is—does Day’s piece adequately identify a deficiency in the current discourse surrounding the minimum wage, and does it successfully put forward an alternative approach?
My criticism of Day comes down to this: In an attempt to work out a vision for socialist strategy in America, Day simultaneously reaches too far while grabbing too little. That is, although certain general points of Day’s are correct, the way that they are positioned from abstract arguments into concrete organizing principles rushes past immediate needs in a way that keeps them from realizing their desired socialist goal.
First, I would like to point out where I agree with Day. As he correctly points out, organizing around a raise in the minimum wage is an odd demand for the left when put in a historical context. Germany, for example, only recently passed a national minimum wage. With its history of strong trade unions and socialist parties, Germany had no imperative need for a minimum wage. Instead, unions could collectively bargain directly with employers, thereby setting wage rates across industries.
The power that this gives working class institutions can be seen by the French state’s still ongoing attempt to implement a labor ‘reform’ law which, among many things, would allow companies to bypass industry-wide collective bargaining agreements. The current political backlash in France against this law, the most militant in Western Europe today, is a testament to how important these agreements are for the working class.
But beyond the general point of union-set wages being better than a federal minimum wage, this is where my sympathy with Day’s argument ends. To continue my metaphor, he ‘reaches too far’ and therefore fails to adequately judge the current terrain. There are very good reasons why, in the context of decades of labor retreat, Germany now has and needs a minimum wage, and likewise why the minimum wage is playing an overarching role in the recent resurgence of the U.S labor movement.
Day writes that he opposes the minimum wage as a tactic as, “[A] minimum wage increase lessens the need for workers in every industry to band together to have their voices heard and thus puts a stopgap against the unionization and camaraderie necessary for socialism.” In my experience working on the Fight for $15 campaign, I’ve found the exact opposite to be the case. While a $15 minimum wage may not be enough for the needs of the urban working class, the demand for $15 an hour and a union has proven to be a powerful means of organizing a previously unorganized sector.
For these fast food workers, the way that they experience the chaos of capitalism is precisely through the rise and now stagnation of the minimum wage. In fact, besides a stagnant minimum wage, little else is stable for them. In an industry that in many ways represents the neoliberal turn in capitalism par excellence, hours are either too long or too short, the schedule is constantly changing, and job turnover is high. It is common for many of these workers to finish a shift at one job only to immediately rush to another shift at a different fast food company.
The tragic case of a Dunkin Donuts worker who died while sleeping in her car from trapped exhaust fumes is the extreme conclusion of this political economy — an overworked, demoralized, and atomized population of workers.
To make matters worse, over in the domestic sphere, rents are rising in face of increasing gentrification, pushing many of these workers either out into the poorer suburbs or else into homeless shelters. Some cannot even afford their own cell phone bills, so a constantly changing stream of phone numbers is yet another challenge organizers face.
The answer to this overdetermined collection of injustices is not to provocatively, let alone practically, call for an abolishment of the minimum wage, as Day does when he writes that, “[Getting rid of the minimum wage] will only serve to anger the working class more and push them further towards unionization and the essential final steps towards socialism and a better society for all.” Instead, it is to use the discourse of an increase in the minimum wage, a discourse common to the experience of all these low-wage workers, as a stable base for creating the mass organizational structure—unions—that Day and I both agree are necessary for achieving socialism.
To put it even more bluntly, the ‘things have to get worse before they get better’ argument has never worked in a U.S context (as the entire neoliberal period shows) and is, in my opinion, a complete non-starter. The call to fight for $15 and union, imperfect as the movement is itself, is one of the few bright spots to come out of the U.S left today. To win and keep on winning, socialists need a deep engagement with the sector of the working class, especially in its urban formation, that Fight for $15 is beginning to empower.
However, my critique of Day’s piece does not end there. Beyond just the debate over the minimum wage, there is a further and deeper critique of the political vision articulated by Day, a difference between the two of us that I believe is very important to emphasize.
To return again to my original metaphor, Day not only reaches too far but also ‘grabs too little.’ By this, I mean that the political content of what he deems socialist practice is much too narrow.
This became clear to me when Day characterized not just fights over the minimum wage, but also social justice movements as “arbitrary things.” In a disclaimer note at the bottom of his piece, Day elaborates: “And I say this not because [Black Lives Matters, Latino rights, gay rights] aren’t noble causes and causes that certainly need attention; I say this because identity politics of any kind are a bourgeois distraction in order to keep us angry at each other so that we don’t become angry at them.”
The appropriateness of the descriptor ‘social justice’ aside, I believe that this strategic approach, if implemented into socialist practice, would be a catastrophic mistake. The class struggle is not just relegated to fights over wages and control of the shop floor, with all else being “bourgeois distractions.”
To use just two examples, how are struggles against police brutality and movements in solidarity with undocumented immigrants not a part of the class struggle?
Immigrant rights are tied into the global political economy of low-wage migrant labor and the effects of both climate change and imperialism. Black Lives Matter is a protest against the killing of persons identified as a threat by armed state actors. Neither of these movements have personal identity as their necessary political content, and actual identitarians who argue otherwise are not only wrong but also hurting the very struggles they claim to represent.
This analysis has important ramifications for movement building. For example, over here in Boston, the group ‘Mass Action Against Police Brutality,” whose rallies have been attended by over 1,000 persons, has organized with Fight for $15 and publically supported a $15 minimum wage and union rights. They know that police brutality is not and cannot be separate from the low wage economy.
In sum, Day’s piece, while provocatively and passionately written, does not, in my opinion, provide a viable alternative to both the current left discourse and left movement building. One day a minimum wage will be unnecessary, but for the time being both the call to fight for $15 and a union and the social movements that converge with it are the starting points for where socialists need to be building not just the next left, but the current left.
Spencer Brown is a student at Wesleyan University and an organizer with Fight for 15.