Minimum-Wage Workers Fight for 15

fight for 15Cambridge’s Fight for 15 is part of a larger national movement to raise the minimum wage. Here, SEIU members protest outside the Feb. 6 Republican debate in Manchester, N.H. Photo by Derek Kouyoumjian.

Cambridge is a progressive city—it’s not known as the People’s Republic for nothing. And yet, Cambridge is also a city divided, split between haves and have-nots. For workers trying to get by on the minimum wage, the city can seem less like a forward-thinking haven and more like a prohibitively expensive dream world. The high cost of living makes it impossible to make ends meet on an hourly wage, even given Massachusetts’s nation-leading pay floor, which is currently $10 per hour and is set to rise to $11 per hour by 2017.

This is a situation that a diverse group of progressives, from city officials to fast food workers, is fighting hard to change. For Cambridge City Councillor Nadeem Mazen, who is seeking a way to implement a citywide $15-an-hour minimum wage, this is not only a crucial social justice issue but also a key to the city’s continued development. “An increased minimum wage is a time-tested way to protect economic mobility and quality of life,” Mazen explains. “We risk eroding basic American economic growth and strength if we don’t hark to this moment here in Cambridge and across the country.”

Mazen began investigating the city’s ability to set its own minimum wage as soon as he was elected to the city council in 2013. His goals are idealistic, but they come from a pragmatic understanding of the daily lives of people trying to get by on the minimum wage in Cambridge. He describes how a recent experiment in which city councilors attempted to live on $10 per day—the amount left over after paying an average Cambridge rent for a full-time minimum wage worker—found that there is simply no room for those workers to spend money in the local economy. “Even transit becomes difficult, which makes it hard to work multiple jobs,” Mazen notes. “The minimum wage now is just under the amount you need to stay afloat, so people feel like they’re drowning. This raise would put them above water and give them escape velocity so they can start to invest in longer-term success.”

For Mackinley Celestin, a father of three who currently works three jobs in Cambridge and Boston to make ends meet, $15 would be a game changer. “I’ve been living check by check, even though I’m working all the time,” says Celestin. He explains that for him, a $15 minimum wage would allow him to spend time with his family, which is difficult given his current work schedule. “If I had that $15 on my check, I could breathe easier, have one job and have time with my four-year-old daughter. She needs her daddy time,” Celestin says. “I know it’s the same for my coworkers—some work more than three jobs and also have families.” Though time is a precious commodity for Celestin, he is committed to putting in time organizing other workers. “This is about us fast food workers against big corporations—we rally together as a family,” he explains.

Many business owners have paid attention to voices like Celestin’s, and some have started to implement unsolicited wage increases. At local vegetarian fast food restaurant Clover, for instance, founder Ayr Muir announced in October that the company will gradually raise its average wage to $20 per hour. Muir wrote in a blog post that it simply isn’t acceptable that “somebody is working full time and earns $16,000 per year, and is living in Boston. Low wages … make crazy little things in life like paying to get on an MBTA bus to go to work an obstacle.”

Mazen is heartened by stories like Clover’s, but he argues that “these independent changes are infectious, but not sufficient.” The testimony of Lenvil Cole, a Dorchester resident who works at Harvard University as a custodian, at a city council meeting in December speaks to the limits of waiting for employers to raise their wages. Cole explained that he had to struggle to get fair pay at Harvard, in spite of the institution’s wealth, and that when he did finally receive higher wages—thanks to pressure from the Service Employees International Union (SEIU)—he was able to put aside money for his children’s education and to worry less about daily expenses. According to Cole, the Cambridge City Council “can make a difference by allowing this proposal [for a citywide minimum wage] to become a reality.”

Some residents are wary of what actions the city might take. Steve Kurland, general manager of Cambridge restaurants EVOO and Za, sympathizes with the movement, but he worries about how the city would implement a higher minimum wage. “People who work for $10 an hour work hard, and that number is low. Every employee at EVOO is making more than the minimum wage. But we also want a seat at the table in this discussion,” Kurland explains. He argues that the proposal for a citywide minimum wage would bankrupt his restaurants if it was implemented without exceptions. “There needs to be more discussion about how this would be phased in, whether all employees would be covered, including tipped employees,” says Kurland. “People should make a living wage, no question. But we can’t just push a proposal through without more discussion.”

Many city officials, including City Solicitor Nancy Glowa, City Manager Richard Rossi and Vice Mayor Dennis Benzan, have argued that Cambridge does not have the authority to set its own minimum wage under the state constitution. But those fighting for change have been undeterred. And it looks as though the tide may be turning in their favor; recently, State Senator Dan Wolf sponsored a bill that would authorize municipal increases in the minimum wage, as well as a bill to increase the minimum wage to $15 for workers at big box stores and fast food restaurants statewide. Boston Mayor Marty Walsh has also convened a working group to look into the possibility of raising his city’s minimum wage to $15. According to Mazen, that “changes the game and increases Cambridge’s lobbying power.”

It could take a significant amount of time for Senator Wolf’s bills to clear the legislature, meaning that an increased minimum wage is still only a future possibility for Cambridge workers. But it’s a possibility that many are willing to push for. “We’re fighting for ourselves and our families,” says Celestin. “We just want what normal families have.”

This story originally appeared in our March/April print edition, which is available for free at more than 200 drop spots throughout Cambridge (and just beyond its borders) or by subscription