How Low-Wage Strikes Helped Change the Conversation in Washington

Slowly but surely, Washington is beginning to take notice of America’s Gilded Age-level economic inequality. 

Less than a year ago, President Obama headlined his 2013 State of the Union with a vow to “finish the job” on deficit reduction; his proposal for a modest increase in the minimum wage came later in the speech. Now he’s describing inequality as the “defining challenge of our time” and supporting legislation that would raise the federal minimum wage to $10.10, more than the $9 he originally suggested.

The basic dynamics of American inequality have changed little in the interlude between President Obama’s 2013 State of the Union and his speech this week on inequality. What’s different is the political context. When Obama made the former speech, low-wage strikes around the country were just beginning to ramp up. Ten months later, thousands of low-wage workers in more than 100 U.S. cities have walked off their jobs, taken to picket lines, and demanded a living wage.

“If we hadn’t had this year of these one-day strikes, we would not be having this conversation, I’m pretty convinced,” said Dorian Warren, an associate professor of political science at Columbia University. “In that sense, these strikes and protests are agenda-setting, and that’s the case with all social movements.”

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