Is a Living Wage Possible under a Trump Administration?

The polarization in American politics can perhaps be best exemplified by examining a recent mass strike for a living wage paired with Donald Trump’s latest cabinet pick. In late November, minimum wage workers across the country, from McDonald’s employees in Los Angeles to airport workers in Chicago, went on strike to demand a $15/hour minimum wage. Meanwhile, last week Trump named as his appointment for secretary of labor one Andy Puzder, CEO of CKE Restaurants, the company that franchises fast food restaurants and that has been sued for failing to pay its employees overtime.

Puzder is disliked by both economic justice groups and feminist activists. Not only has he complained about workers who demand such basic rights as a living wage and who defend themselves against age and gender discrimination, he also lauded sexist advertising, opposed abortion rights, and was accused of intimate partner violence by his ex-wife. Puzder is, however, in favor of increased automation in the fast-food industry because, as he told Business Insider, “[machines] are always polite, they always upsell, they never take a vacation, they never show up late, there’s never a slip-and-fall, or an age, sex, or race discrimination case.”

In other words, Puzder dislikes workers simply because they are human, though he attempts to justify his preference for automation by blaming the government for setting a minimum wage and for increasing healthcare benefits for workers through the Affordable Care Act. (In the Washington Post, Darrell West of the Brookings Institute refutes this idea by arguing that whether there are increases or cuts to the minimum wage or healthcare benefits, the automation trend is likely to continue anyway.) Puzder’s poor history on both workers’ rights and women’s rights is particularly disturbing given the fact that, according to the National Women’s Law Center, two-thirds of minimum wage workers are women. In his capacity as Secretary of Labor, Puzder seems disinclined, to say the least, to stand up for workers and even less likely to stand up for women workers.

Rather than backing down in the face of opposition from Puzder, now more than ever is the time for workers to come together to demand a living wage. Given CKE Restaurants’ history of wage theft, labor activists are skeptical that he would enforce such basic regulations as overtime pay. Trump’s promise to “make America great again” by bringing back high-paying jobs sounds more like a sham, especially in light of his recent deal with Carrier, in which he promised the company considerable tax favors to keep a small number of jobs in the United States, while it will still offshore over 1,000 jobs.

Workers have a pressing need to exercise their right to strike, picket, and protest now while they can still legally do so. Individual states are beginning to introduce legislation that would severally penalize if not outright ban protests, including strikes. After the post-election anti-Trump rallies around the country, Washington State Senator Doug Erickson introduced legislation that would classify protests as a form of “economic terrorism” subject to federal prosecution. After the strikes for a $15/hour minimum wage, Michigan introduced legislation that would fine protestors up to $1,000 per day for exercising their freedom of speech, while unions could be fined up to $10,000 per day. Not only are workers’ rights to good jobs, living wages, and safe working conditions at stake, but everyone’s right to peaceful assembly is under threat.

As humanists, we uphold basic rights and dignity for everyone, and we cherish the right to freedom of speech and assembly. Rather than acquiesce to a Trump cabinet that’s increasingly full of people wishing to dismantle our civil liberties and our government, we must defend those freedoms while also seeking out ways to expand liberty and justice for the marginalized and disenfranchised. We should consider ways that we can increase basic protections and health benefits to better meet people’s needs, whether through a $15/hour minimum wage, implementing single-payer healthcare, or shoring up policies that protect people of color and LGBTQ individuals from discrimination and harassment in the workplace. Instead of looking at our prospects under the future presidential administration and despairing, we should do what the humanist movement has always done—advocate for what betters the lives of human beings right now.