Talking Wages: The impact of Fight for 15 on the Political Discourse of Minimum Wage Fights

Project Background

The United States has seen an explosion of efforts to raise the minimum wage at the state and local level - both traditionally conservative states like Arkansas and Nebraska and more progressive areas like California, New York, and San Francisco have all raised their minimum wage above the federal standard of $7.25 an hour since 2014. At the heart of this policy momentum stands the Fight for 15, a national movement of labor unions and community leaders who are organizing for $15/hour minimum wage and the right to form a union. Initially dismissed as impossibly high, the $15 an hour wage target is now accepted as a reasonable level in the policy debate about the minimum wage, despite representing a historically unprecedented doubling of the current federal level wage floor (currently $7.25).

Although the role of Fight for 15 remains indisputable in boosting the number of state-level wins and the growing normalization of $15 an hour, the movement’s precise role in shaping the terms of state-level debates around the minimum wage is less well understood. Specifically, there is still much we don’t know about how the Fight for 15 shaped the political discourses in these states, or how it influenced the arguments made by proponents and opponents of the wage increase. Did states with a Fight for 15 presence involve different political discourses than those where the movement did not engage? And did these differences translate into different political outcomes—were states with Fight for 15 engagement more or less likely to pass wage increases than those without? Lastly, is there evidence that states without Fight for 15 engagement also began using similar discourses as those where engagement occurred?

Project Objectives

To answer these questions, students will be asked to complete the following:

  • Briefly review the scholarly and policy literature on the political discourses and “messaging” involved in minimum wage fights
  • Develop an analytical framework for assessing the different political discourses in state minimum wage fights, looking specifically at media articles in relevant states
  • Use this framework to develop and analyze a dataset of relevant discourses across the study area, both before and after the advent of the Fight for 15
  • Write a policy memo that explains their results and answers these questions

About the Client Organization/Faculty

The project will take place with the partnership of the NC Justice Center, a nonprofit, nonpartisan advocacy organization dedicated to eliminating poverty. The Justice Center has deep ties to the state’s labor movement and is currently helping to lead a broad coalition dedicated to raising the state’s minimum wage. As a result, students will have the opportunity to interface with labor and community partners in the course of the project.

Skills Required

Undergraduates should have a basic understanding of American politics. Experience with a text-coding software package like Atlas-ti would be fantastic, but not required. The graduate student mentor should have experience with methods and theories of discourse analysis and should be able to train the undergrads on appropriate software packages.

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