ALLISON AUBREY, HOST:
This week, Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton both gave speeches highlighting their economic policies, and we wanted to spotlight one policy that hasn't gotten too much attention this political season - raising the minimum wage. The federal minimum wage stands at $7.25 an hour. But polls show that most Americans think it needs to go up.
So far, some states have moved to increase the minimum wage, including California, New York, Oregon, and some big cities have passed wage hikes, too, such as Seattle, Los Angeles and Washington, D.C. Now, one thing is clear. The next president has said he or she will support a minimum wage increase. Here's Donald Trump a few weeks back talking about his plan.
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DONALD TRUMP: So I would like to raise it to at least $10. And what I'm going to do is I'm going to bring jobs back to this country, so that people can start working again so that the $10 and the $15 and the numbers you're talking about are going to be literally - they're going to be peanuts compared to what people can make in the country.
AUBREY: Hillary Clinton has said she would support a blanket hike of the federal minimum wage to $12 an hour and would consider as much as 15 an hour if it worked like the hike in New York, where an increase is phased in over several years and wages for workers in the city, where cost of living is highest - are higher than wages in parts of the state where it's not as expensive to live. Here's Clinton speaking on Thursday.
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HILLARY CLINTON: Raising the federal minimum wage won't just put more money in the pockets of low-income families. It also means they will spend more at the businesses in their neighborhoods.
AUBREY: The debate is front and center today as thousands are gathering in Richmond, Va. at a union-backed convention calling for a federal minimum wage of $15 an hour. We wanted to check in on that rally, so we called Reid Snider who has been talking to advocates there. Hey, Reid.
REID SNIDER, BYLINE: Hi, Allison. How are you?
AUBREY: I'm fine. So tell us what is the scene there?
SNIDER: Well, it's a very hot day in Richmond with temperatures hovering around 95 to 96 degrees. The crowd was very hot, but they were very vocal in their vision on this rally. The mood is very energetic, I might add. I would say probably about five to 8,000 people in general - it's hard to tell. They're very spread out. And they left from the Monroe Park down near the campus of Virginia Commonwealth University and moved up the very famous Monument Avenue to the Robert E. Lee Memorial, where they say they are making the case that in the current minimum wage situation and the oppression that they live in is a result of the Civil War and racism.
AUBREY: So that's the symbolism of marching along those monuments.
SNIDER: Absolutely. That's why it ended at the Robert E. Lee Memorial to raise awareness that this is a straggler of that old system of oppression in government, they say.
AUBREY: So what are you hearing from people at this convention?
SNIDER: Well, by and large, they are in favor, of course, of higher minimum wages. Many of them that I talked to work in industries that are based on a minimum wage, and they say they really can't afford to live at the current 7.25 rate here in the mid-Atlantic region in general.
AUBREY: I guess the movement is pushing for $15 an hour. Is there a sense there among people you talk to that that's realistic?
SNIDER: Well, it's interesting you should ask, Allison, I asked some of the folks that I stopped along the march up to the Robert E. Lee Monument about that. And they said, well, it is a tough situation, but, you know, as a civilization, we're just going to have to move that way so that many people can afford to live, buy insurance, feed their children and they would also like a union.
AUBREY: That's Reid Snider of WCVE at the Fight for 15 Convention in Richmond, Va. Thanks, Reid.
SNIDER: Thanks, Allison.
AUBREY: Now, to get a fuller picture, we reached out to people who have a lot at stake in this debate. We start with a story of longtime restaurant worker and Fight for 15 organizer Terrence Wise. He lives in Kansas City. He's 37 years old and the father of three. We reached him in Richmond ahead of the rally.
TERRENCE WISE: I actually started working at 16. I got my first job at Taco Bell. I can remember minimum wage back then was 4.25 an hour. And I've been working in the industry for nearly two decades now. I currently work at a McDonald's and Burger King, and despite my experience and years on the job, I only make $9 an hour at both jobs - no benefits, no vacation, no paid time off.
AUBREY: Wise has pretty much always worked minimum-wage jobs, and he says it's always a struggle to make ends meet. He and his family rely on food stamps and other public benefit programs.
WISE: Nothing's ever fully paid. It's like always you put this much on the light bill or you put this much on the gas bill, and you just pray that a disconnect notice doesn't come.
AUBREY: Now, at one point, he told us that his life spiraled out of control. It was after his fiance got sick.
WISE: It was the second time that me and my fiance and my three little girls - we experienced homelessness. Anytime you're working in our industries - or are working without benefits or anything of that nature, one little illness - a week off for the flu or you get hurt or something - and you miss that paycheck, you're struggling. You're behind right there.
And we lost our home, and we were sleeping in our minivan - me and my fiance and my three little girls. And I can recall the morning we woke up and me and my fiance were getting ready for work in the front seat. I'm putting on my Burger King uniform. She's putting on her CNA scrubs, and in the back of the minivan the girls are getting ready for school, getting backpacks on, putting socks on.
And that just really hit me. We're in America, the richest nation on Earth. And here you have two working parents getting ready for work in the front seat of their minivan while their three daughters are getting ready for school in the back of it, homeless. Something's terribly wrong in this country when you have a family that is working doubly hard. We're working triple hard, and things just aren't getting better.
AUBREY: And so Terrence Wise says it didn't take much to convince him to join the union movement fighting for a higher minimum wage.
WISE: It was a Sunday. I was at Burger King, and I was mopping the lobby, I remember. And I can remember a McDonald's worker and a Domino's worker. They came in the Burger King I was working and they had started talking about how workers around Kansas City were now organizing to demand a living wage, and they asked me and my co-workers a set of questions that day when they came in. I'm like OK.
And then they're like, do you guys think you need a living wage? And I'm like living wage? What's that? Sounds like money to live off. Yeah, that sounds good. And they're just like do you think you deserve benefits to go see the dentist or whatever? And I'm like, yeah, that would be really nice. I haven't been to a dentist in 18 years. And do you think you deserve a vacation? Shouldn't all working Americans have a vacation once a year? I'm like yeah. I haven't seen my mom in 10 years. That would be nice. So...
AUBREY: You hadn't seen your mother in 10 years?
WISE: Oh, definitely not, definitely not. I'm in Kansas City, Mo. I'm from South Carolina, and that's where my mom lives at now. And I don't get time off of work, really, to go see her or have the resources to travel and see her, not even once a year.
AUBREY: So Terrence Wise got involved with the Fight for 15. The movement has gained a lot of traction over the last two years staging rallies in dozens of U.S. cities and grabbing headlines and TV coverage around the nation. But not everyone feels that a higher minimum wage is the answer.
Robert Mayfield owns nine Dairy Queen franchises in the Austin, Texas, area. He says hiking the minimum wage will lead to higher prices on his menus and job losses.
ROBERT MAYFIELD: I'm opposed to any time the government gets involved and meddles in the marketplace.
AUBREY: Mayfield says if the minimum wage is pushed much higher, some small business owners would stop hiring people, and he says that's already happened to some extent.
MAYFIELD: People that are listening to your program will remember the times they used to go into a fast food restaurant and one of the employees would give them a drink before the time they ordered. Now it's all self-service, and that's because when labor becomes so expensive, you do what you can to eliminate some of it. And that's a job that no longer even exists in fast food - somebody pouring the drinks and giving them to you. You make your own drink, and that's the reason.
AUBREY: So people would be replaced by machines, by automation?
MAYFIELD: They already have been. They already are in my stores. It's a self-service drink.
AUBREY: Mayfield says the market should determine the wages, and in his case in Austin, Texas, he already pays higher than the minimum wage. We start out at $12 an hour.
MAYFIELD: And we don't do that because we're nice guys, we do that 'cause there is a labor market, and we do that to get the best people because the best people are what we've got to have.
AUBREY: Robert Mayfield says he's moved by stories he hears from people like Terrence Wise, but he's skeptical of the Fight for 15 movement.
MAYFIELD: I'm empathetic to hear the story. The first thing I would tell that individual is to see if you can find another job with another company where your skills might be better utilized. What I do know about the so-called Fight for 15 is that it's sponsored by labor unions that are losing members all over the country, as I understand it, and those are the ones that I've read in several sources that are behind that whole so-called movement or demonstrations. It's the service unions, labor unions hoping to get more members, best as I can tell.
AUBREY: Labor unions are, in fact, organizing the Fight for 15 movement, and while raising the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour is unlikely given the current political landscape, supporters say the movement has already changed the conversation. McDonald's and Walmart are two of the major companies that have raised starting salaries by some amount since the Fight for 15 took off. Both companies have come under a lot of pressure from labor groups to boost wages. Terrence Wise says he's optimistic.
WISE: The way out, I tell you, is what we're doing now. If you look back in this country in the paths and what workers are doing now, it's always been movements that have changed the country. We know that even our elected leaders and politicians - they don't just come up with their own great ideas. They go with whatever the people push them.
And we know with this presidential election cycle the main topic is wage inequality and racial inequality in this country. You hear it on so many platforms, and I think that's been brought about by what workers have been doing across the country. And that's been organizing and coming together and telling their stories and fighting to win better pay and union rights at the job, and I think that's truly the way out.
AUBREY: That's fast food worker and organizer Terrence Wise. He's attending today's Fight for 15 convention in Richmond, Va. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.