Living Wage Movement Now Amazingly Normal

JM Family President & CEO Colin Brown (left) with finalists in the company’s first Pinewood Derby Car Championship, benefiting United Way.

The living wage movement went mainstream in 2015. Just ask the Floridian of the Year.

Last year started with nationwide protests against low wages paid by Walmart.  In February, the retail giant announced that it would raise its minimum wage to $9 an hour for 500,000 workers, with $10 planned for February 2016. Big deal, said activists. They had already shifted their focus to local and state governments, demanding that legal minimum wages be raised to a “living wage” of $15 an hour. And, they added, low-wage workers must join unions.

As the year wore on, the Fight for $15 movement took off faster than even its organizers had hoped. By the end of the year, activists were busy in 270 cities. All three Democratic presidential candidates voiced their support. Fourteen city, county and state governments approved $15 minimum wage laws, with notable victories in New York state; Massachusetts; New York City; Los Angeles; Pittsburgh; Chicago; San Francisco; Rochester and Buffalo, New York; Seattle; Milwaukee; and Santa Fe, New Mexico, according to a tally kept by the National Employment Law Project (NEPL).

While $15 is an easy-to-understand political goal, the actual wage needed to lead a dignified life depends on where you live and who lives with you. Figuring all that out is the goal of several number-crunching teams, notably the Living Wage Calculator maintained by researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

That team scored a big victory in late 2014, when Ikea announced it would use the MIT site to gradually adjust its starting wages up to a living wage at its many U.S. locations. A year later, Ikea reported that the decision had been good for the company, and it expanded the policy to include its stores in the United Kingdom.

But the movement’s biggest win might have come in December, when the mainstream business magazine Florida Trend named its “Floridian of the Year.” Colin Brown, CEO of JM Family Enterprises, got the honor for quietly implementing a $16 hourly minimum wage for his company’s 4,100 employees.

The amazing thing was how normal it all seemed. Brown, a 66-year-old lawyer educated at a military academy and Duke University, runs a franchised Toyota distributorship in southeast Florida. He serves on several boards of directors, including his local United Way, a business development group, and a statewide good government association. He loves organizing fundraisers like a Pinewood Derby, a gravity-powered toy car race made popular by Cub Scouts.

Brown is about as mainstream as it gets. But he “has a very definite moral compass,” says a colleague in the Florida Trend article. “He’s going to decide what’s right, not what makes the most money.”

The Fight for $15 has legislative or ballot proposals pending in another 15 jurisdictions this year, according to the NEPL. And with friends like Colin Brown, the sky’s the limit.

Image credit: JM Family Enterprises, used with permission