Report: Fight for $15 movement tackles racial wealth gap

In 2012, a group of 200 fast-food workers walked off the job in New York City and demanded a $15 hourly wage and a union. In the decade since, the “Fight for $15,” as the movement came to be called, has secured higher wages for more than 26 million workers, lowered the racial wealth gap in many states and pumped more than $87 billion into local economies, according to a report released Tuesday by the National Employment Law Project (NELP).

A labor advocacy organization, NELP compiled the report to commemorate the 10-year anniversary of the “Fight for $15” and measure its impact.

In the years since the movement started, the “Fight for $15” has spread well beyond the fast-food industry. While federal lawmakers have failed to raise the minimum wage, the report notes that 29 states and nearly five dozen cities and counties have done so since 2012. In a landmark victory for the movement, California passed legislation this year that will create a Fast Food Council, which will have the authority to standardize wages throughout the state’s fast-food industry and will include state officials, workers’ delegates and industry representatives.

As a result of these legislative victories, the report says that over 26 million workers have won an estimated $150 billion in higher pay, which has had a profound impact on local economies. NELP estimates that the minimum wage policies enacted since 2012 produced over $87 billion in additional annual economic output. Workers spent their higher wages on groceries, car repairs, restaurant meals and doctor visits, and their increased spending supports 452,000 jobs each year.

Workers of color have been at the forefront of the “Fight for $15” since the beginning, and NELP’s analysis found the movement has had a notable impact on the racial wealth gap in some states. The report’s authors focused on workers’ median personal net worth between 2013 and 2019, when the “Fight for $15” was gaining traction throughout the country.

In states that raised the minimum wage above the federal baseline, Black workers’ median personal net worth rose 174 percent; in states whose minimum wage did not change, it only rose 3 percent. Latinx workers in higher-wage states saw a dramatic 211-percent increase in their median net worth, and in states that did not raise the minimum wage, Latinx workers’ net worth increased by about half as much (123 percent). The report also found that the wealth gap between Black and white workers decreased by over 40 percentage points in higher-wage states during the period analyzed.

The “Fight for $15” also advocates for increased unionization, and NELP’s report found that the movement has had a modest impact on union membership. Between 2011 and 2021, union membership increased 3.8 percent in higher-wage states and fell 9.9 percent everywhere else. Earlier this month, workers and “Fight for $15” organizers launched the Union of Southern Service Workers, which hopes to unite low-wage workers across notoriously anti-union states in the South.