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Who Will Fight for A National $15 Minimum Wage?

By Ben Jealous

  • Ben Jealous says the next president will have an opportunity to press the fight for a $15 minimum, and Bernie Sanders says he favors it nationally
  • A president has the power to limit federal contractors to companies that pay $15 an hour

Ben Jealous is the former President and CEO of the NAACP. He has endorsed Bernie Sanders. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his.

(CNN)As the Democratic presidential candidates take the debate stage in Brooklyn on Thursday, tens of thousands of workers will be out in the streets in cities such as Washington, Chicago, Los Angeles and hundreds of others demanding $15 and union rights.

Among them will be workers that serve food to U.S. senators, including Sen. Bernie Sanders and former Sen. Hillary Clinton, but earn so little that they rely on food stamps to feed their families. They will be joined by janitors who mop the floors of military hospitals and are forced to rely on Medicaid to take care of themselves and their loved ones.

While New York and California recently became the first states in the country to move toward a $15 an hour minimum wage, striking workers will want to hear how the next president plans to bypass a deadlocked Congress and help all workers from coast to coast.

Sanders has a plan to win $15 and a union. Standing with striking workers in Washington, he announced legislation both to raise the national minimum wage to $15 and to strengthen workers’ ability to form unions by majority sign-up.

He understands the importance of a union contract. In fact this week, he stood shoulder to shoulder with striking Verizon workers fighting for a fair contract.

But, more importantly, Sanders has also championedthe use of a president’s executive authority to help workers win living wages and collective bargaining rights.

Clinton, on the other hand, supports a $12 federal minimum wage nationally, allowing local governments to go higher, and has said little about how she plans to strengthen unions. She’s also been silent about how she would use executive action to help workers if elected to the White House.

Given this contrast, the “Fight for $15 and a Union” — and the use of executive action in particular — provide a clear dividing line between the two candidates.

The truth is that U.S. government is America’s leading low-wage job creator. The next president has tremendous power to lift millions of low-wage workers out of poverty without legislation.

In fact, the next president can issue an executive order that denies lucrative government contracts to companies that don’t pay a living wage of $15 an hour and interfere or retaliate against workers who are organizing. A bold pledge by the candidates to use the power of the pen to “Fight for $15 and a Union” would send workers everywhere a clear message that national change is coming.

As history shows, broad social transformation doesn’t start with Congress but rather by a president willing to wield the power of the pen.

Decades before the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was passed by Congress, activists pressured presidents to take executive action to expand economic opportunity for people of color and women.

In 1941, labor leader A. Phillip Randolph told President Franklin Roosevelt he was ready to mobilize tens of thousands to march on Washington if the President didn’t open the ranks of the military to African-Americans. Roosevelt issued Executive Order 8802 to end hiring discrimination in the armed forces and defense industries.

Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson also took action to address the demands of civil rights activists. With the stroke of the pen, JFK ended segregation of federally funded housing. LBJ followed-up with Executive Order 11246, banning federal contractors from discriminating in hiring based on “race, color, religion, sex, or national origin.”

Unfortunately, the doors of opportunity are closing again for these workers — the majority of whom are women and people of color — as low-wage jobs make up a greater share of the economy than ever before.

Each year, the federal government spends more than $1 trillion to buy goods and services from private corporations.

The CEOs of many of these companies that win these taxpayer-funded contracts get rich thanks to high salaries and bloated bonuses, while millions of workers earn so little that they are forced to rely on charity and public aid to make ends meet.


President Barack Obama — in the tradition of FDR, JFK and LBJ — has laid the groundwork for his successor. In the wake of repeated strikes by low-wage federal contract workers in Washington, organizing under the banner of Good Jobs Nation, he has signed three executive orders to improve conditions for low-wage workers. These orders raise the minimum wage for federal contractors to $10.10 an hour, crack down on wage theft and other labor abuses and extend paid leave for federal contract workers.

At Thursday’s debate, the candidates will have a good opportunity to explain how they plan to continue this progressive legacy.

America’s workers will be watching from the picket lines.