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April 15, 2015

Walk With Workers

On a day when rallies are taking place across the country – and right here in Richmond – supporting people who work hard and are paid too little to get by, there is another hint of progress for some Virginia workers. At Martin’s grocery stores 1,185 workers will see a raise to at least $9 an hour on June 7, and future hires will start at that level or higher. Martin’s joins Walmart, McDonald’s, and others that have boosted wages in recent months.

A slowly strengthening economy is helping. Increased consumer spending means more employers need to compete for workers. And the organizing of coalitions of low-wage workers, labor unions, and community supporters is important too. They are drawing public attention to highly profitable companies paying workers too little to make ends meet, and the deep erosion of wages for many workers over the past 10 years. These coalitions are widening the conversation about wages to include the impact on the rest of society when workers aren’t paid enough to support their families. When wages are so low and benefits are non-existent, many workers have to turn to public safety net assistance like SNAP and Medicaid to meet their families’ basic needs. And when parents are barely hanging on financially, it takes a toll on their kids and everyone else around them.

By drawing these connections, the new worker-labor-community coalitions are engaging in public pressure to get wages raised to more decent levels. In places where political leaders are more responsive to the situation of low-wage workers, that has meant public involvement to either directly raise the state or local minimum wages or to negotiate wage increases with major low-wage employers. In other places, that has meant successful direct pressure on employers to raise wages, either inside or outside the traditional mechanisms of union negotiation. Here in Virginia, a lot of the gains for low-wage workers have come on the coattails of the national movement pressuring large employers to raise wages, but even here the advocacy of workers like those in Raise Up is beginning to get noticed.

Most of the gains have been small. The $9 an hour that Martin’s will pay comes to only $18,000 a year for a full-time, year-round worker. That still won’t support a small family above the poverty line. And Martin’s decision helps just a handful of workers compared to the 700,000 who would benefit from raising Virginia’s minimum wage to $10.10 an hour. But after years of declining wages for too many Virginians, it’s encouraging to see workers and their supporters make some progress on the path toward pay that is sufficient to support a family and build a future. Let’s hope Virginia’s business and political leaders are listening and will walk with these workers, rather than looking the other way.

–Laura Goren, Senior Policy Analyst

The Commonwealth Institute

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