On primary election day Tuesday, Philadelphia residents overwhelmingly threw their support behind Ballot Question No. 3, which would encourage the city to lobby state legislators — or act on its own — to establish a $15-an-hour minimum wage.
It was largely symbolic, because, as the question pointed out, Philadelphia is not legally allowed to raise its minimum wage, due to a clause added to the state’s minimum wage law in 2006.
So, did this vote mean anything? What would need to happen to raise wages in the poorest big city in the country?
The answer: A lot more work on the side of organizers, advocates, and politicians.
To understand how we got here, we have to go back to 2014, right before the exact same ballot question was being considered in City Council. Advocates, workers, and unions in Philadelphia had just started battling for a $15 minimum wage. Organizers with the Socialist Alternative, a national organization that helped elect Seattle Councilperson Kshama Sawant, a champion of a $15-an-hour minimum wage when it was still a radical idea, teamed up with the union SEIU, which was organizing fast-food workers and promoting the “Fight for $15” campaign. Throughout 2014 and 2015, the organizers held rallies and strikes and put pressure on City Council to challenge Harrisburg on minimum-wage law.
Because there was so much attention on the issue at the time, and so many workers involved, said Kate Goodman, former lead organizer of the 15Now campaign in Philly, maybe a ballot question would be enough to show legislators that there was a hunger for change, the thinking went.
But in Philly, the resolution for the ballot question, introduced by Councilman Kenyatta Johnson, got held up in committee and died. The $15 minimum wage campaign in Philly died with it.
Four years later, Councilwoman Cherelle L. Parker introduced a resolution to introduce a ballot question regarding the minimum wage. It passed by 17-0.
What changed? Council has increasingly had a taste for progressive laws that aim to protect workers and fight poverty, like the Fair Workweek scheduling legislation for retail, fast-food, and hotel workers. Roughly 300,000 people hold service-sector jobs and are making an average of about $27,000 a year.
Either the state or the federal government has to raise the minimum wage or Harrisburg has to amend the state’s minimum wage law to allow municipalities to raise their own wage, said John Meyerson, a former union political director who convenes the Raise the Wage PA coalition.
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There are currently two bills — one in the House and one in the Senate, both Republican-controlled — that propose an amendment, as well as bringing the minimum wage up from $7.25 to $15 an hour by 2025. They have stalled in committee. Gov. Tom Wolf has expressed his support for raising the minimum wage that’s been in effect for a decade. An increase has been opposed by Republicans for years.
It’s not just about politics, though, according to Goodman: There has to be worker organizing around the issue and across the state. Currently no labor groups are actively focused on minimum wage.
“The groundswell has to go beyond Philadelphia, because there aren’t the votes in Philadelphia," said Meyerson, who previously worked with grocery store workers union Local 1776.