PAUL SONN FOR BUZZFLASH AT TRUTHOUT
Amazon's announcement that it's raising pay to $15 an hour for its more than 350,000 low-wage employees generated headlines -- and unexpected criticism from the company’s workforce since it simultaneously cut bonuses and stock grants, and compressed its pay scale. The Amazon raise followed similar $15 wage increases by Target and Disney -- and led Sen. Bernie Sanders to call on McDonald's to do the same.
But what many of the mainstream media headlines missed was the real story of how Amazon and other companies got here: it's been the voices of workers both at Amazon and in the Fight for $15 that have led the tech and retailing giant to this point. And how Amazon responds next to a rising chorus of demands from its workforce will determine whether it breaks through as a leader in delivering good jobs.
The idea that US workers needs at least $15 an hour didn't come from an HR expert or an economist. It was the demand of the brave fast-food workers of the Fight for $15 who explained to the nation that it was the minimum they needed in order to have a shot at dignity and a decent life.
When they walked off their jobs in 2012 and launched a movement, their demands were widely dismissed as fanciful. But their strikes quickly spread across the country, and they were soon joined by workers in retail and at airports, hospitals and caregiving, car washes and property services, all raising their voices for much higher pay and the right to unionize.
For years, policy makers and elected leaders lagged far behind, continuing to talk about $9, or $10 or $12 minimum wages. But the workers began to make headway. Starting with Seattle and cities up and down the West Coast, they fought for and began to win actual $15 minimum wages. A few short years later, $15 minimum wages are now being phased in for more than one-fifth of the US workforce, in states including California, New York and Massachusetts, and localities from Washington, DC; to Minneapolis, Minnesota; to Flagstaff, Arizona.
Recently, airport workers in New York and New Jersey won the highest minimum wage in the nation: $19 an hour by 2023. After November, more states are likely to follow. And if control of either house of Congress shifts, a $15 minimum wage is likely to be an early priority for new leadership.
This dramatic shift in national momentum behind raising pay has been powered by workers. It's been campaigns by low-paid retail workers, resort workers and contracted janitors, cafeteria workers and bus drivers that are pushing major companies like Target, Disney, Facebook and Google to raise pay and support union drives.
Eventually, the experts caught up with the workers. Cost of living data show that $15 an hour is, in fact, the minimum that a single worker in all 50 states will soon need to cover the basics -- and that workers with families and in higher-cost states in fact need even more. And the research is confirming that -- as with the vast majority of past research on the minimum wage -- the new higher minimum wages are raising pay without costing a lot of jobs.
Which brings us to Amazon. The nation's tech and retailing behemoth has come under increasing fire for how it treats its workforce. Part of it has been about low pay and the fact that many of its workers earn so little they need food stamps to get by. But exposés have also documented the harsh health, safety and working conditions in Amazon's warehouses and faced by its contracted delivery workers. As a result, warehouse workers and truckers serving Amazon joined in a historic strike this month in Southern California. Whole Foods workers have complained about worsening job conditions after Amazon acquired the chain. The company employs legions of online workers at subminimum wages through its controversialMechanical Turk "gig jobs" platform. And beyond jobs, its sweeping, harmful impact on state and local budgets, communities, small businesses and competitive markets as it commands an ever-growing market share and dominates new industries is a source of mounting concern across the political spectrum.
The worker voices challenging Amazon to deliver value and quality jobs for its workforce are the force behind the company's wage boost. While the $15 minimum wage announcement is a significant step forward, it will be even more important to see what Amazon does next.
If Amazon really wants to lead on workplace standards, as CEO Jeff Bezos says, the company needs to tackle the health and safety impacts of its fast-paced production demands and on-demand scheduling; guarantee basic benefits like health care and paid sick leave to all its workforce; and ensure that it extends these same humane standards to its vast contracted workforce of temp and staffing workers, and contracted delivery workers. And where its workers raise their voices to join together in a union to work for better jobs, it needs to respect that choice.
Amazon has disrupted and transformed retailing, tech and myriad other segments of our economy. How it brings that creative energy to improving the wellbeing of its entire workforce -- from its contracted staffing and security workers, to its online and warehouse workers, to its truckers and delivery people -- will now be one of its greatest challenges.
Paul Sonn is state policy program director at the National Employment Law Project.