In this episode of Gravy, “The Bare Minimum,” producer Sarah Holtz follows Florida’s Fight for 15, a labor campaign aimed at raising the minimum wage to $15 per hour. Though there are countless labor issues associated with restaurant work, from wage theft to sexual harassment, the minimum wage is a concrete area to affect change, because it improves material conditions for hourly workers in every industry. Historically, it’s also a difficult thing to change.
To understand why, Holtz interviews experts to explore the history of the minimum wage. The abolition of slavery catalyzed the beginning of sharecropping and convict labor in the South, and while both Black and white Southerners worked as sharecroppers across the region, Black Southerners were disproportionately marginalized by these systems.
This pattern continued through the Great Depression, when President Franklin D. Roosevelt enacted the New Deal, generating millions of jobs but still leaving 9 million American adults unemployed. The New Deal provided aid to commercial farmers but not sharecroppers, particularly poor and Black farmers. It also created the minimum wage. In 1938, the original minimum wage was $.25 an hour. When adjusted for inflation, that’s just under $5—so even when it was first established, the minimum wage was not a living wage.
The minimum wage also does not increase with inflation. When their compensation stays the same year after year, workers actually slip down the economic ladder. If the minimum wage had increased the way it was originally intended to, it should be a lot higher than it is today.
The minimum wage has been difficult to change since the rise of so-called Reaganomics in the 1980s, an era when trickle-down economics widened the gap between the rich and poor. Reagan famously remarked that “half a loaf is better than none,” and by his policies, the minimum wage stagnated—until 2012, when the Fight for 15 formed.
Under the current federal minimum wage, which is $7.25 an hour, a full-time worker will make just over $15,000 annually—if that worker takes no holidays. The minimum wage puts full-time workers below the poverty line. It may sound obvious, but the question remains: should the minimum wage be enough for a person to live on?
Holtz speaks with Alex Harris, a fast food worker and leader in Florida’s Fight for 15 campaign. He tells of the health risks he endured while working during the pandemic, participating in a walk-out, and what’s at stake in the Fight for 15. Holtz also interviews Matthew Simmons, a labor historian at Emmanuel College in Franklin Springs, Georgia, who has studied the unique challenges among low-wage workers in Florida. Finally, Samantha Padgett, general counsel for the Florida Restaurant and Lodging Association, provides a counter-argument, asserting that minimum wage hikes threaten businesses that bolster tourism in Florida. In her reporting, Holtz examines both the economic and moral factors that motivate the Fight for 15.
Sarah Holtz is a reporter and producer based between Oakland and New Orleans. Her work has aired on Houston Public Media, New Orleans Public Radio, Northern California Public Media, and elsewhere. She received training in audio and writing at the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University.
Photo courtesy of Florida’s Fight for 15 (Instagram @fightfor15florida)
We thank Aquita Brown and Eugene Harrison for assistance with this episode.
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