Vice President of SEIU Discusses the Fight for $15

The “Fight for 15“. New Jersey’s version of the nationwide effort to raise the minimum wage is sitting on Gov. Christie’s desk awaiting only his signature to become law. The bill would gradually raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour. NJTV News Correspondent Briana Vannozzi recently sat down with Executive Vice President of the Service Employees International Union, Milly Silva.

Vannozzi: You wrote in an op-ed for NJ Spotlight that this push for a higher minimum wage is an extension of the Civil Rights Movement. How is that?

Silva: Well in 1963 when Dr. King and civil rights organizers were putting together the March on Washington, one of the demands of that march was that there be a new national minimum wage of $2 an hour. If you took that $2 an hour of 1963 and adjusted it for inflation, today that wage rate would be $15.49 so in so many ways the Fight for 15 movement is the continuation of the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s.

Vannozzi: Fifteen dollars. That’s roughly $31,000 a year which is not much by today’s standards. So, why that number, why that amount?

Silva: Well, there’s been extensive research that has shown that if you can at least have workers get to $15 an hour it will enable them to be able to start on a path to get out of poverty. They won’t have to rely on public assistance or other kind of aid and they’ll actually be able to have a little bit more money in their pockets so that when they go home they’re able to then shop and that helps small businesses — which is something that we desperately need in the New Jersey economy.

Vannozzi: So you’re saying this is an economic boost all around if we do this push to raise the minimum wage?

Silva: It is absolutely an economic boost and also it is an opportunity to close the wage gap for women. I don’t know if you realize this but not only are women earning less than men these days but in New Jersey it turns out that Latina women are earning 42 cents an hour. Many of them are low wage workers. So the $15 is about boosting the economy, lifting workers out of poverty and starting to close that wage gap when we say we want equal pay for equal work we need to make sure it includes all women.

Vannozzi: What I hear from small business owners — and larger businesses — is that we have a lot going on right now. They’re dealing with earned sick leave with the potential of a constitutional amendment for obligated pension payments and then the minimum wage. Michele Siekerka from the NJBIA called it “a trifecta legislation” if this were to all go through at once and they say it would hit them hard. You don’t see it that way?

Silva: Well one thing to recognize is that what has happened all over the country is about setting a path to $15. So if Gov. Christie signs the legislation to create $15 an hour as the new minimum wage there’s several things that are going to happen. One, 975,000 New Jerseyans will be able to know that they’re going to have an opportunity to get out of poverty but it doesn’t happen overnight. It is about saying how do we reach $15 an hour by 2021 so that it allows people to be able to get there including our small business owners. The other part of it is that there have been a lot of economies who’ve taken a look at this issue and they have found that increasing the minimum wage will actually have a discernible impact on the economy so that it’s not as if the sky’s going to fall but instead what will happen we will lift up close to a million New Jerseyans out of poverty.

Vannozzi: But what about those business owners that say prices are likely going to go up and it doesn’t necessarily mean better services or better products? Legislation that would gradually increase the minimum wage in New Jersey to $15 an hour is sitting on the governor’s desk. Any indication he will sign it?

Silva: Well one of the things that every business, and in particular small business, needs is more consumers. Anyone who sees an increase in their pay is going to then be able to go out and do some shopping. They’ll be able to buy school supplies for their children, they’ll be able to perhaps buy more groceries and be able to shop at their community stores. That’s what we need so it’s disposable income that gets reinvested right into the economy right away.

Vannozzi: Could there be repercussions for those summer or seasonal workers, teenagers who are off and those who receive the minimum wage who may not get those jobs?

Silva: Well, Briana, one thing that it’s important that every New Jerseyan recognize is that most low wage workers are actually not teenagers. They are adults, many of them have college, they’re full-time workers and they’re head of households. So in fact when you look at increasing the minimum wage, what you’re really saying is that you’re going to recognize that the hardworking people of New Jersey need to be able to make ends meet and $15 is an opportunity to help them on that path.

Vannozzi: Is there cushion for business owners? So if this was to go through, how is that phased in so that they’re not slammed all at once?

Silva: Sure, so the current legislation that was enacted by both houses of the Legislature is one that sets a path for $15. It starts by increasing the wage to $10.10 in 2017 and then year by year increasing it either a dollar with an adjustment for inflation or $1.25, whichever is greater. So again it’s not as if you’re going to go from the less $8.38 that we have today to $15 overnight. It really is about allowing time for that minimum wage to increase year by year allowing businesses to adjust to it but also making sure that at this moment we’re in our economy. We have so many people who are struggling to make ends meet that they’re on that path to get there.

Vannozzi: Why do you think this Fight for $15 has gained so much traction? Not just here in New Jersey — we’ve had a number of demonstrations about it — but why do you think it’s gained so much traction across the country right now?

Silva: I think that working people recognize what their real life experience is. They know that they’re working incredibly hard and yet they’re struggling to make ends meet. So what you’re seeing is a national movement. It started in Seattle where thousands of workers were able to see an increase in the minimum wage. Then you saw it in Massachusetts with home care workers who are now receiving a minimum wage of $15. Now, we’re just across the Hudson River where Gov. Cuomo and bipartisan leadership from that Legislature enacted a path for $15 that’s going to allow 3.1 million New Yorkers to be able to reach $15 as a minimum wage. Here in New Jersey we should be able to do the same. We should be able to do what’s happened in New York and California because in a lot of ways we’re at this tipping point and we want to make sure New Jersey is a part of really saying in that moment where we have to look at what is needed for this country that New Jersey did the right thing to set a path and to really take another step forward in making the dream of Dr. King a reality so that we can say that the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s now in 2016 is becoming a reality for people here in this country starting in New Jersey and just continuing all over from coast to coast.

Vannozzi: This legislation that phases in $15 by 2022, is there any indication the governor will sign it?

Silva: Well I understand that back in the spring when Gov. Christie was addressing the Chamber of Commerce he made a comment where he referenced the Fight for $15 as insane. I really hope that what will happen is that he will recognize that two to three years ago when fast food workers started to make the demand for $15 many people said they were crazy too but look at what’s happened. You now have the two largest states in our country, New York and California, have enacted $15. It’s happened in all of these other states and so really that insane, crazy idea by fast food workers is now becoming a reality and we hope that Gov. Christie will do the right thing and sign the legislation and make it the law of the state.

Vannozzi: OK, Milly Silva, executive vice president of Labor Union 1199 SEIU thanks so much for coming in.

Silva: So glad to be here with you.