New York state has decided to raise the minimum wage to $15 per hour by 2021. But only for fast food workers. I don’t begrudge these workers this proposed much deserved raise. But this is not the right way to do this. It is further limited to fast food chains that have at least 30 restaurants in the state. But that too misses the point. This isn’t about soaking the rich. This is about making the economy slightly more fair. People can’t live on the minimum wage. And that means that businesses that are dependent upon the minimum wage are free riders; they aren’t efficient and should either become so or get out of the economy.
But more than this, what’s so special about fast food workers? Are the workers at Walmart any less oppressed? I suspect that the real reason is that the fast food industry doesn’t lobby as well. Given that it is mostly based on franchising, it is easier to push around. But raising the minimum wage throughout the state would likely upset Andrew Cuomo’s core constituency: Wall Street. And we can’t have that. Or at least Cuomo wouldn’t let us have that.
Now we hear lots of happy talk about raising the fast food worker minimum wage putting upward pressure on other wages. That’s no doubt true. But it doesn’t put that much pressure on them. And you know what would be a whole lot of upward pressure on them: raising the minimum wage across the board. This strikes me as the same old thing of the government doing as little as it can to get one particular constituency off its back. But there really is no justification for limiting this move to a particular industry.
Of course, it is hardly certain that this will become law. This may be just another case where Cuomo does something publicly to look good to Democrats, and works behind the scenes to kill it. It is sure to be challenged in court, and the courts have a long history of siding with business — finding all kinds of rights for them, even while workers seem to lack even the most basic rights. We will see. This seems to be a pretty strange policy, and one that can easily be argued is unfairly targeting a particular industry.
But I’m most concerned about what will happen to labor law more generally. Having an endless variety of minimum wages — based upon the industry and the job — will be the same as having no minimum wage at all. Clearly, this is more an indication of our totally screwed up economy. The minimum wage is supposed to be about, well, the minimum: the absolute lowest that anyone should be allowed to work. And I do think that this level should be $15 per hour. But all this is going to do is bring up the wages of some workers. And this will definitely happen: fast food workers will start to be more white and male.
Don’t get me wrong. On balance, this is a good thing. Hopefully, it will make everyone see that we can live with a $15 minimum wage and it will be extended everywhere. But this is a cowardly way to go. And one that may not work out that well.