The Fight for $15 movement went into the July Fourth weekend facing a tsunami of upsets that may very well have altered the minimum wage debate moving forward.
The Fight for $15 movement has been at the forefront of the minimum wage debate since it started in 2012. In just over a week the debate has experienced a battle of contradictory studies, alleged backdoor deals, local battles across the country, and the possibility the movement is losing steam.
Seattle became the first place in the country to pass the $15 minimum wage in June 2014. The University of Washington released a report June 26 which shows the policy might actually be hurting the city. The study setup an eventful week with critics and supporters scrambling to take control of the narrative.
The Seattle City Council commissioned the university to review the policy as it gradually gets phased in. Lawmakers typically design minimum wage increases to phase in over time to give employers time to adjust. Seattle is scheduled to reach $15 an hour at the start of next year. The city is currently at $13.50 an hour.
University of Washington Study
The University of Washington study isn’t the first attempt to analyze the policy in Seattle and elsewhere. But the study is unique in ways that could have a profound impact on the policy debate. The city council commissioned the study, the research team is bipartisan, and they had more access to government data.
“What’s so significant about the University of Washington report is it has more than any minimum wage study since the [Congressional Budget Office] report in 2015, provided a credible, neutral, third-party analysis of a higher minimum wage,” Michael Saltsman, managing director at the conservative Employment Policies Institute, told InsideSources.
The study found that the increase has already caused problems for workers. It shows workers had their hours reduced at a rate that exceeds the increased wages. The study seemingly confirmed what critics have been warning. The Fight for $15 and other supporters, however, were quick to denounce the findings.
A Possible Turning Point
The University of Washington study and the proceeding week may very well become a turning point for the minimum wage debate. Competitive Enterprise Institute senior attorney Hans Bader notes that at the very least it’s now more difficult for supporters to make their case.
“Given the large amount of publicity it seems to have gotten in swing-state newspapers, that University of Washington study, finding large job losses from the Seattle minimum wage increase, may end up being more than just a blip,” Bader, who has a background in economics and individual rights, said. “It will make it harder going forward for supporters of large minimum wage increases to claim that there are not substantial job losses.”
Center for American Progress senior fellow David Madland suspects the study won’t have that much of an impact despite the attention it is currently drawing. He notes attention isn’t necessarily an indicator that the study will be widely remembered or useful down the road.
“My hunch is this is just a momentary flare up,” Madland, who also serves as the senior adviser to the American Worker Project, said. “What makes this latest round somewhat newsworthy is you got one study that is very contradictory to the rest of a large body of research. Contrast is inherently newsworthy.”
Other Reports Contradict
The University of Washington report takes on a number of contradictory studies. Those opposed were quick to release research and statements alleging various problems with the study. Madland notes one sign the study is potentially flawed is that it diverges radically from the existing body of research.
“The minimum wage is about the most studied labor policy out there,” Madland said. “There have been tons and tons of studies on it. But over the last decade or so the vast majority of studies have converged around no, or very little, employment effect.”
The Economic Policy Institute (EPI) countered in its own study that the negative analysis has data and methodological problems. The University of California, Berkeley, released a report a week prior which found the citywide increase helped to increase wages while having little impact on employment. Studies elsewhere have found employment loss can be severe, especially for low-skilled workers.
Seattle Mayor Ed Murray denounced the University of Washington study in an op-ed for excluding workers at multisite businesses like fast-food chains. Saltsman counters that researchers excluded these businesses because they didn’t have the same access to data as businesses located solely in the city. They did, however, survey those excluded business to gain additional data outside of their main results.
“When they surveyed these businesses they were actually more likely to report consequences than some of the smaller businesses they had data for,” Saltsman said. “If anything, it just means the University of Washington study understated how bad the minimum wage has actually been.”
Madland adds the academic process will help determine whether it is an accurate study. Policy experts and university professors will review the study and evaluate it. Madland notes that in the meantime he has his doubts about the validity of the research.
Local Fights Across the Country
Seattle isn’t alone with the policy taking center stage. Many more cities have begun enacting the policy or trying to legislate an increase. Illinois Democrats are even fighting to enact a statewide increase, though that is likely to be vetoed by Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner.
“The other thing going on is Missouri,” Madland said. “You have the state getting rid of city’s ability to raise their minimum wage. I think you have a story about whether local governments should be able to control raising their minimum wages or not.”
Missouri Republicans have worked to advance a bill that bans localities from enacting their own minimum wages. The bill will even cause some cities like St. Louis to reverse local minimum wages that have already been enacted.
Fight for $15 Faces Possible Trouble
The Fight for $15 movement has helped make the policy a nationally known issue. But the recent developments may prove problematic for the movement. The Wall Street Journal columnist Holman Jenkins even noted last Friday that union backers are considering reverting funds to other purposes like electoral politics.
“Even some left of center locales recently have said no to $15,” Saltsman said. “It’s hard to look at that and draw any other conclusion besides the fact that the $15 minimum wage has run into a pretty massive wall and is struggling to regain momentum.”
The Fight for $15 movement is primarily funded by labor groups like the Service Employees International Union (SEIU). Saltsman says that the union might be realizing the movement is losing momentum. Madland counters that the movement is still going strong because the $15 minimum wage is a very popular policy.
“I think the Fight for $15 movement remains, perhaps, the most important progressive movement at the moment for workers,” Madland said. “The truth ultimately matters, but the politics, and where the public is, will drive the debate for the foreseeable future.”
Public Opinion Matters
Research provides critical insights into policies like the $15 minimum wage. But what these studies are saying isn’t necessarily what drives lawmakers to seek out change. Rather, it’s usually the public consensus that dictates what policies lawmakers will prioritize.
“I also think it illustrates the politics of what’s going on here,” Madland said. “The minimum wage gets pushed when the public demands it, not when studies make one finding or the other.”
Madland adds that currently the minimum wage is a popular issue with the $15 mark increasingly gaining support. The Fight for $15 may very well stay a strong political movement if the policy it backs remains popular with the public.
Study Emboldened Critics
The University of Washington study, at the very least, has likely emboldened critics. Jeremy Adler, communications director for the conservative nonprofit America Rising Squared, sees the past week as reinforcing the concerns critics have been expressing.
“The past week’s developments have crystallized the fatal flaw with the so-called ‘Fight For $15,'” Adler said in a statement provided to InsideSources. “Their SEIU-funded effort is centered around the idea of helping workers, but as the ‘very credible’ U-Washington study showed, their push has actually hurt workers.”
The Alleged Study Shopping
Seattle Mayor Ed Murray is also being accused of pursuing research that puts the policy in a positive light. Fox News obtained emails June 29 which allegedly reveal the University of California, Berkeley, released its study after a request from the mayor’s office.
“The mayor actively sought out the Berkeley team to write a rebuttal that would come out before the University of Washington team study,” Saltsman said. “I think that why the same day the University of Washington report came out, the Economic Policy Institute, and these other organizations, had their own criticisms that came out. I think the criticism are substantially overblown.”
Saltsman believes the mayor allegedly sought out the separate study when he learned the University of Washington research, that the city council commissioned, was going to be negative. Saltsman argues the mayor was simply study shopping to get the results he wanted.
“In retrospect now, we know that what happened is that the mayor received an early copy of the University of Washington report, he found that the results were bad,” Saltsman said. “So, he went to a team of researchers at the University of California, Berkeley, who never met an increase of the minimum wage they didn’t like.”
The Fight for $15, Mayor Ed Murray, and the SEIU did not respond to a request for comment by InsideSources.