‘Fight for $15’ protests get political: How might GOP candidates respond?

The ‘Fight for $15’ upped its political game with a new round of strikes Tuesday, and Bernie Sanders joined in. But business and political interests on the right are pushing back. Will Republican presidential candidates?

Mike Segar/Reuters/File
Fast-food workers and their supporters join a nationwide protest for higher wages and union rights outside McDonald's in the Harlem section of Manhattan in New York City, November 10, 2015.

The “Fight for $15,” a nationwide movement to improve the wages and working conditions of the country’s lowest-paid workers, is nearing its fourth year of existence. As the latest round of strikes and protests kicked off Tuesday, the movement, which counts the Service Employees International Union as a major backer, is more politically formidable than ever.

Legislation to raise the minimum wage in several US cities and states has been successful over the past several months, and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, a serious contender for the Democratic presidential nomination, continued his endorsement of  "Fight for $15's" aims by joining in on one of the protests in Washington Tuesday morning.

But as winning an issue as higher minimum wages has been on the far left of the political spectrum, it grows more complicated as things move rightward. And with the latest strikes culminating in a demonstration at tonight’s GOP debates in Milwaukee, Wis., protestors are putting more pressure on Republican presidential candidates to respond directly.

According to organizers, Tuesday’s actions are expected to be the most widespread yet. Fast food workers in 270 cities began walking off the job starting at 6 a.m. this morning, and protests are expected in 500 cities worldwide, including demonstrations of food service, child care, home care, and workers from other low-wage industries outside city halls and other government buildings. 

Additionally, Sen. Sanders joined contract workers who cook and clean on Capitol Hill in a protest outside the Senate building. Those workers, who are contracted by Compass Group/Restaurant Associates to cook meals provide cleaning services for US senators (including presidential hopefuls Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz), have made headlines in recent weeks for relying on various forms of federal assistance, like food stamps and being required to take out second jobs.

“US Government shouldn’t be America’s leading low-wage job creator,” Sanders said in a Tuesday press release.  “The federal government should lead by example and make sure taxpayer-subsidized federal contractors like Compass Group pay a living wage of $15 and allow workers to organize without retaliation.” 

Democrats, predictably, have fallen in line in supporting ‘Fight for $15,’ but they are divided on the movement’s explicit goals.  Hillary Clinton tweeted her support Tuesday, but she has said previously that a $15 minimum wage wouldn’t be appropriate in areas with lower living costs, and instead advocated for a $12 an hour wage now in Congress.

The response of GOP hopefuls, on the other hand, hasn’t taken definite shape. Candidates have weighed in on the wage question in myriad ways: some, like Jeb Bush, want to  eliminate the minimum wage and leave it to the private sector decide, while some, including Ben Carson and Rick Santorum, have even expressed support for increases. Others, including Carly Fiorina, Ted Cruz, and Marco Rubio, have said a higher wage would hurt workers and businesses.

That’s the central argument of the ‘Fight for 15’s’ opponents. On Tuesday, the Employment Policies Institute, a fiscally conservative think tank, released a study showing that 72 percent of economists surveyed don’t support a $15 minimum wage, on the basis that it would hurt employment levels. The International Franchise Association released a statement condemning the protests as “political theatre that does not help close the income inequality gap,” and that “put the future of these jobs and businesses in jeopardy.”

Whether any of the candidates in tonight’s debate will echo those points, or if the protests will be on the agenda at all, remains t be seen. But as candidates work to position themselves as champions of a wide range of working Americans, it will be hard to ignore the matter outright. 

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