Labor advocates surely raised a toast to last week’s announcement by mega-chain Target, raising its minimum pay from $10 to $11 an hour (with subsequent raises to $15/hour by 2020). Fresh on the heels of this seeming victory, however, is a dour punditry, ready to pour cold water on the results of minimum wage activism. “Don’t give the union-backed Fight for $15 activists too much credit,” writes business columnist David Nicklaus of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. “Target wasn’t responding to social or political pressure; it was making a hard-nosed business decision.”
Nicklaus isn’t wrong. Target, a massive retailer with 1,800 stores and 323,000 employees—plus 100,000 additional workers around the holidays—did not make a decision based solely on good vibes and a philanthropic soul. Calculations were surely made, weighing whether the company could stay competitive on prices after a big across-the-board hike. Also part of the equation was a burgeoning retail labor shortage, high turnover, and of course the pleasant optics of making an announcement like this (just ask Walmart).
But why does Nicklaus need to downplay the potential social justice impact of Target’s move? Why can’t we allow labor activists like Fight for 15 to enjoy this sliver of good news for a moment, even if they weren’t wholly responsible for it? The arc of progress is often propelled by a patchwork of influences, especially when it comes to big business. Trucking companies didn’t lower emissions because they love clean air. Big Poultry didn’t start eliminating antibiotic use simply because activists demanded it. And your mac and cheese didn’t lose its artificial colors because Kraft simply loves your family (sorry).
Target isn’t being cagey about its motives: The company expressed a desire to “recruit and retain strong team members.” And an obvious method to achieve that is, well, treating them better. At a moment when the national unemployment rate hovers around 4.4 percent, companies that rely less on skilled labor (and whose wages reflect that) are puzzling out ways they can become more appealing employers. This seems like a fairly natural outcome, if not the typical trajectory of capitalism.
That said, effective activists know when there is momentum. Senator Bernie Sanders (D-VT) and his proposed minimum wage-raising legislation has legs; Target’s announcement comes at a good time to further enliven the Fight for 15 movement. Even if, as Nicklaus asserts, “Target’s move is more of a victory for market forces than for the Fight for $15 folks,” that doesn’t mean the fight is worthless. For every victory achieved—like New York City’s wage increase for fast food workers—there is one step back, like Missouri’s recent reversal of St. Louis’ adoption of a $10 minimum wage.
Those on the wage justice front lines can use as much encouragement as possible. Market forces and social activism can co-exist—if not always harmoniously.