Denver’s recent historic vote to raise its minimum wage to more than $15 an hour marks a long-overdue victory for local communities over big corporations that for 20 years blocked Denver and other cities from raising the minimum wage to help working Coloradans. The grassroots effort that led to Denver’s action provides a roadmap for other communities across the state. And for our elected leaders in Washington where the same big corporations — together with Mitch McConnell’s Republican Senate majority backed by Colorado Sen. Cory Gardner — continue to block action to lift the federal wage floor.
It’s no secret that Colorado families are being squeezed between the skyrocketing cost of living — especially housing — and paychecks that have barely budged. While on paper we’re 10 years into an economic boom, wages for average Coloradans have been largely stagnant. But the cost of living has been anything but. Instead, Denver, its suburbs, and many other Colorado cities and towns, are seeing some of the fastest rising housing costs in the nation. And black, Latinx and Native American workers — who are paid far less than their white counterparts in our segregated job market — are being squeezed the most, and are struggling to afford to stay in their communities.
The same is true across the country. While the federal minimum wage has been frozen at a paltry $7.25 for a decade, the cost of living has been rising. In fact, new research confirmed recently what working families already know: the cost of many of the biggest items in working families’ budgets have been rising faster than the official inflation rate.
But despite growing worker needs, when Denver residents in 1996 attempted to raise the minimum wage locally, big corporations swooped in and passed a state law tying communities’ hands. Like similar “preemption” laws in other areas, this law for decades prevented Colorado cities from addressing the needs of local workers. At the same time, those same special interests year after year blocked any action in the state legislature to help raise wages. While worker advocates and community groups finally managed to raise the minimum wage by putting it on the statewide ballot, it wasn’t until this year — when Democrats with the backing of community and worker groups — took control of the state legislature, that communities were finally able to repeal this corporate stranglehold.
The same dynamic has been playing out in Washington. Cost of living data show that single workers in all 50 states need $15 an hour to cover very basic living costs — and that workers with children and those in higher cost states like Colorado need even more. But Republicans in Congress together with big corporations have kept the federal minimum wage frozen at $7.25 an hour for 10 long years.
After Democrats took control of the U.S. House of Representatives in 2018, House lawmakers in July — with the support of Colorado Reps. Diana DeGette, Joe Neguse, Jason Crow and Ed Perlmutter — passed the first federal minimum wage increase in 10 years, which would gradually phase up to $15 an hour by 2025. Unfortunately, it’s been DOA in the Senate where McConnell’s slim majority refuses to let it come up for a vote. This is despite the fact that voters across the nation overwhelmingly back a $15 minimum wage — and large numbers of small business owners in Colorado and across the U.S. support a phased-in minimum wage increase as fair and manageable.
Here in Colorado, we have finally broken the 20-year corporate logjam, and unshackled cities to step in to protect working families, as Denver now has. How did we do it? Through hard work and organizing. The Work Here Thrive Here Coalition, the alliance of community organizations, labor unions and legal and policy groups that led the effort, helped families share their stories of how Colorado has become unaffordable for average working people, and educate legislators and the public about how the former Republican majority’s preemption laws and policies were hurting communities and locking families in poverty.
The efforts culminating in Denver’s historic vote on Nov. 25 offer a roadmap for how communities across Colorado and throughout the nation can continue the momentum to boost paychecks and improve workers’ lives. We need to organize to bring a $15 minimum wage to more communities across Colorado. We need to make clear to Colorado voters how Sen. Gardner is contributing to the blocking of long-overdue raises for working families here and across the nation — while hurting our communities in myriad other ways from endangering our environment to threatening Coloradans’ access to healthcare. And while we’re at it, Colorado voters should press our other U.S. senator, Michael Bennet, on why he is among just a handful of Senate Democrats who have not co-sponsored the federal Raise the Wage Act, which most other Colorado Democrats support.
Denver’s new minimum wage will boost pay for more than 90,000 workers, including half of all Latinx workers and a third of black workers in the city. By removing the shackles of corporate influence over wage policy in Colorado to deliver this long-overdue raise, our coalition and Denver are showing all of us the way forward.
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