17. Wages & Benefits

Begin in agreement, for example: America should be a land of opportunity, where hard work is rewarded.

Our values: Opportunity, equal opportunity, fairness, fair share, justice, level playing field

Our vision: Our economic system is unfair because the rules are rigged to favor the rich and powerful over the middle class and working families. We need to ensure that lower-level jobs provide at least a living wage and that middle-class jobs support a middle-class standard of living. Four policies are fundamental, laws that: (1) set a floor on wages for different types of work; (2) guarantee a minimum set of job benefits; (3) ensure that hiring and retention processes are fair; and (4) protect the right to collective bargaining in order to secure for workers a fair share of the profits.

Progressives have often focused on legislation to create jobs, and that’s a worthy goal, of course. But in today’s economy, voters are much more interested in policies that provide better wages and benefits. A CBS News/New York Times poll, for example, found that more than 70 percent of Americans favor a substantial increase in the minimum wage, 80 percent favor paid leave for parents to take care of newborn children and sick family members, and 85 percent favor paid sick leave for employees when they are ill.

So, audiences are prepared to agree with progressive narratives about improving wages and benefits. For example:

Say . . .
For too many hardworking Americans, wages and benefits haven’t kept up with the cost of living. And because it is middle class and working families who drive our economy, the lack of decent wages and benefits hurts everyone. Therefore, we must rewrite some economic rules so that workers get a fair deal by [specific legislation]. This policy helps build an economy that works for everyone, not just the wealthy few.

Why . . .

Every message about wages and benefits should explicitly say the beneficiaries are hard working. Use the values associated with equal opportunity, such as fairness, fair share, fair deal, and level playing field. And again, explicitly point a finger at the rich and powerful.

Minimum Wage

The federal minimum wage is only $7.25 an hour. More than 70 percent of voters support raising it to $10 an hour, around 60 percent support $12 an hour, and a majority would raise it to $15 an hour. This cause is both great politics and great policy; every progressive should embrace the issue.

Generally, persuadable voters earn more than the minimum wage. So you need to show them that they indirectly benefit from an increase in the minimum wage and that the people receiving direct benefits are deserving.

Say . . .
America must be a land of opportunity, where hard work is rewarded. But today’s minimum wage is not enough for a family to make ends meet. Raising the minimum wage puts money in the pockets of hardworking Americans who will spend it on the things they need. This, in turn, generates business for our economy and eases the burden on taxpayer-funded services. It’s a win-win. Raising the minimum wage helps build an economy that works for everyone, not just the rich.

Why . . .

Many progressive advocates want to start with facts and figures. Please don’t. Most Americans are already on your side so take this opportunity to show how the policy they already understand and favor is based on your progressive values.

Here are the key arguments to make. An increased minimum wage:

  • Rewards work—raising the minimum wage shows that we value hard work and people who work hard;
  • Boosts the economy—the public already believes this, so say it loudly;
  • Saves taxpayer money—if families make a decent wage, it reduces their need for government programs; and
  • Promotes fairness—people remain quite angry about CEO pay and the unfairness that pervades today’s economy; workers deserve their fair share.

There is also language to avoid. Don’t make the minimum wage about alleviating poverty. The reality is that persuadable voters will default to negative stereotypes they hold about people in poverty: they shouldn’t have taken such a lousy job, they should have gotten a better education, they’re lazy or unreliable or did something that got themselves into their situation. So it is particularly important to frame the minimum wage as good for the entire economy, for all of us.

Don’t say . . . Say . . .
Help the poor

The working poor


An economy that works for all of us

An honest day’s pay for an honest day’s work

Why . . .

By all means, you can say that “in the wealthiest nation on Earth, no one who works full-time should have to live in poverty.” And it would be hard to testify on the minimum wage before a legislative committee without mentioning the federal poverty level. But when you’re talking to average voters, avoid referring to beneficiaries in ways that evoke a “welfare” stereotype.

Right wing argument: The free market takes care of wages.

Say . . .
In America, everyone who works hard should be able to live a decent life. Currently, minimum wage workers earn less than $300 a week. No matter where you live, that’s just not enough to make ends meet. This is about people who work hard every day so their employer can make a profit. At the very least, they deserve to be able to pay their bills.

Why . . .

An individual who works full-time at the current $7.25/hour federal minimum wage earns $14,500 a year (for 50 weeks), which is below the poverty level for a family of two or more. Congress last raised the minimum wage in 2007. The minimum wage in 1968, if adjusted for inflation, would be about $12 today; so raising it to $10-$12 would be modest by historical standards.

Right wing argument: The minimum wage affects only a tiny percentage of workers.

Say . . .
Every hardworking American should get a decent wage. In fact, a minimum wage increase to $10 [or $12, or $15] an hour would improve pay for about one in four private sector workers across the country. And it would benefit everyone else by putting money back into local businesses and getting our economy moving again.

Why . . .

A $10/hour minimum wage would directly boost the wages of about 17 million workers. In addition, because of a “spillover effect”—that increasing everyone below $10/hour would indirectly boost the pay of workers who earn between $10 and $11/hour—the minimum wage increase would benefit 11 million more. Obviously, a minimum wage above $10 an hour would benefit a greater number of Americans.

Right wing argument: Raising the minimum wage will cost jobs.

Say . . .
Hardworking people deserve a wage that pays the rent and puts food on the table. A minimum wage increase would help do that without reducing the number of jobs available. Over the past few years, many states have increased their minimum wage far higher than neighboring states, and economists have been able to study what happens to jobs in the state with the higher wage in comparison to its neighbors. According to seven Nobel Prize-winning economists, “increases in the minimum wage had little or no negative effect on the employment of minimum-wage workers.”

Right wing argument: Tipped workers are already paid enough. They don’t need a raise.

Say . . .
Tipped employees, like waiters, work hard for their pay. And yet, incredibly, the minimum wage for tipped workers is only $2.13 an hour, and it has not increased since 1991. No wonder the poverty rate for tipped workers is more than double the rate for other employees. Raising the tipped minimum wage does not hurt restaurants. In fact, seven states—including California, Minnesota, Nevada and Washington—have the same minimum wage for tipped workers as they have for everyone else, and the restaurants in those states are thriving. Everyone who works hard deserves to make a decent living.