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'Fight for 15' Movement Gaining Momentum

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Watch a California Matters episode about workers' rights and fair wages here.

It was back in November of 2012 when New York fast food workers from several national chains started striking for better pay, work conditions, and the right to unionize. National strikes soon followed, continuing to put pressure on businesses and lawmakers, and almost three years later, the "Fight for $15" movement has made enormous progress on the state and federal level.

But to catch you up, let's look at where the cities stand for now: Starting with Seattle then San Francisco, the two west coast cities were the first to implement a minimum wage increase to $15 for workers in 2014. The city of Los Angeles followed suit in May and just last month, New York voted for incremental hikes to pay $15 by 2018. Washington D.C. is putting the issue on the 2016 ballot.

We've been covering the fast food workers strike and looking at the various effects of increasing the $7.25 federal minimum to $15 would have on the restaurant industry, workers, and even taxpayers. However, consider one segment of restaurant workers -- the tipped workers who still earn a paltry $2.13 an hour and make up the rest with tips. The issue is that most of them don't and fall under the poverty line.

While seven states, including California, have the same minimum wage for all workers, there are millions of restaurant workers within the other 43 states. Advocating one fair wage is the pet cause of Saru Jayaraman of ROC United (Restaurant Opportunities Centers United) and Director of the Food Labor Research Center at UC Berkeley. ROC, the organization she co-founded, has had a successful year so far.

"The change in the last two years has been more radical and more incredible than we've seen since we founded the organization 13 years ago," she says.

She's referring to the news in July when presidential candidate Bernie Sanders (I-VT) and co-chairs of the Congressional Progressive Caucus introduced a bill calling for a $15 minimum wage by 2020. Furthermore, the bill would repeal the separate minimum wage for tipped employees. Though getting it passed remains a long shot, it's received a lot of attention and the minimum wage issue is slated to become a key issue during the presidential election. While Hillary Clinton has not endorsed the bill, she has talked about raising the minimum wage as well.

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Jayaraman points out that the people who struggle in the industry the most are the 70% who are women -- many of them women of color and mothers -- working for tips, a practice that she argues makes them vulnerable to harassment. Besides lifting many restaurant workers out of poverty, eliminating a tipped minimum wage (and eliminating working for tips altogether) would also provide a safer work environment.

The move for one fair wage would "primarily impact women, women of color," she says. "We're addressing income inequality and gender inequality, and the poorest in America. The wage has been stuck [at $2.13] for the last 25 years."

The progress made throughout the country is momentous, but it's important to keep the conversation going. "These bills were just introduced so they need to pass," says Jayaraman. "The several state and local victories need to become part of a major issue in the presidential race."

And while there's anxiety among business owners and the restaurant lobby about a minimum wage apocalypse, Jayaraman says that they only need to look to what's happening in California. The state's restaurant industry remains the largest and fastest growing in the country -- a true success story.

"California's restaurant industry has shown that it doesn't just survive," she says. "It thrives and is a model and example."

Besides California, the other six states that have eliminated a tipped minimum wage -- Oregon, Washington, Nevada, Montana, Minnesota, and Alaska -- must continue to be examples for the rest of the country.

"It's still an important issue for California workers because as long as surrounding states are still paying wages of $2-3 an hour, tipped workers will be under constant threat."

In fact, the equal pay minimum wage was recently under assault in California. Earlier this year, Assemblyman Tom Daly (D-Anaheim) introduced a bill sponsored by the California Restaurant Association (CRA) that would cap the minimum wage for California's tipped workers at $9. However, the bill was abandoned due to unenthusiastic support in the state legislature.

Perhaps people are starting to wise up to the idea that restaurants, like every other business, should pay their employees fairly.

"The industry," Jayaraman says, "has tried for too long to pass its costs on to customers."