Hillary Clinton’s political pragmatism made her slow to embrace the effort to double the federal minimum wage. But backers of the growing movement say her candidacy — and the party — could benefit from it now and in the future if she follows through.
The final night of the Democratic convention highlighted progressive economic planks that at times were the source of debate in the campaign: the minimum wage increase as well as college affordability, pay equity and family leave.
Henrietta Ivey, a home healthcare worker from Michigan and an organizer in the Fight for $15 movement, said “no working American family should be forced to live in poverty.”
“I know she will fight to raise the minimum wage,” she said of Clinton.
Just how far Clinton would go in that fight has changed, as has her party.
Early in her campaign, Clinton sought to balance what she called the Democrats’ commitment to boosting a minimum wage with the reality of a Republican-led Congress. She supported a $12 per hour federal minimum— up from the current $7.25 – aligning herself with legislation offered by Sen. Patty Murray of Washington, the top Democrat on the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions committee.
"Let's not just do it for the sake of having a higher number out there, but let's actually get behind a proposal that has a chance of succeeding,” Clinton said.
But as her battle with Sen. Bernie Sanders extended from the winter to spring – and Sanders kept attracting more voters with his calls for wage fairness -- Clinton made clear that she would be open to going further. As the New York primary approached, she stood alongside the state’s governor as he signed legislation bringing that state’s minimum wage up to $15 per hour, with some exceptions for non-urban areas.
Just two years ago, Senate Democrats ran on a platform that included raising the minimum wage to $10.10 an hour, while encouraging efforts to put state-level increases on the ballot in key states.
Murray’s proposal last year upped that goal. The Democratic platform approved at this week’s convention set the goal at $15, with future increases tied to the rate of inflation.
Hector Figueroa, vice president of the Service Employees International Union, said Sanders, by talking up a $15 minimum at every rally, helped push the issue to the forefront of the party’s agenda.
But the momentum was already building, he said, pointing to a grassroots coalition that started racking up victories across the country last year. At least 15 states and cities now have laws requiring a $15-an-hour wage, though some of them are phased in over time.
“If he would have said ‘15’ without a movement in the grassroots, nobody would have paid attention,” he said. “It became more than just a slogan.”
“Only time will tell if we are experiencing a resurgence of new New Deal politics in the Democratic Party” and away from the more centrist, corporate-friendly pivot led by Bill Clinton in the 1990s, he added. “Both are co-existing in the party today.”
The pledge to raise the wage provides a clear contrast with Republican nominee Donald Trump who at one point this year said not only that he opposed raising the federal minimum wage, but thought it was already too high.
This week, Trump was the candidate changing course.
“I would like to raise it to at least $10,” he said at a news conference. “And what I'm going to do is I'm going to bring jobs back to this country so that people can start working again so that the $10 and the $15 and the numbers you're talking about are going to, literally, they're going to be peanuts.”
The minimum wage increase could be critical to Clinton’s success in appealing to, and turning out working-class voters in key industrial states like Ohio, Michigan and Pennsylvania. Voter participation from low-income workers likely would be higher in those states if Democrats tried harder, a veteran labor organizer said at a panel here on Wednesday.
“The question next is what do Democrats need to do, and why don’t they do more to mobilize and engage these voters?” said Steve Rosenthal, the political director for the SEIU.
“As long as Democrats are not addressing these issues, and putting them front and center, and Republicans are doing everything they can to block us, it makes it very tough for us.”
Joseph Stiglitz, a Nobel Prize winning economist and former chair of the President’s Council of Economic Advisers, said the push for a $15 wage had helped galvanize a progressive movement around issues of income inequality.
“This is transformative at the moment,” he said in an interview Thursday following a panel discussion about building a case for a new economic message for Democrats. The issue could be a spark toward attracting more low-wage workers into the party, he said.
“The great thing about a groundswell movement is once you get it going, it pays dividends,” he said. “Success breeds success, and they’ve already had a number of successes.”
Labor groups like the SEIU, which has endorsed Clinton, say they will push to ensure she keeps her commitment to back a wage increase.
“Here’s what workers told us: we’re going to support somebody who has a bold, aggressive agenda, that wants to change America, not manage them,” AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka said in an interview. “She came out with that agenda.”
Shakira Stewart, 25, of Philadelphia, a $12-an-hour security guard, helped lead workers at Philadelphia International Airport into a strike vote on the eve of the convention. For her and a lot of her fellow workers, she said, the experience was their first involvement in the political process.
“We had a lot of people say, what what did politics ever do for me? But when you let them know you are doing something for them, and it’s not just for you, they’ll get involved.”