California is going to raise its minimum wage to $10 an hour by 2016, and surely one reason is the wave of strikes by low-wage workers over the past year.
When workers hit the picket lines, it's tempting to gauge their chances of success in narrow terms: Will they force concessions from their employers?
So it is that a writer like Derek Thompson at the Atlantic may predict that the fast-food worker strikes are "doomed" because employers have plenty of choices in a weak labor market and consumers aren't about to boycott places like McDonald's because of low wages.
As I wrote here, Thompson's pessimism seems premature, given that we live in an age where powerful social movements can emerge virtually overnight to topple dictators, knock out dozens of moderate Republicans, or occupy financial districts nationwide. Why should taking on McDonald's be harder than taking on Mubarak?
But what just happened in California offers another reason why nobody should be pooh-poohing the recent strikes. Forcing concessions from employers is not, and has never been, the sole goal of labor organizing efforts. That may be the immediate goal, but labor has always understood that government also has the power to improve their lives through public policy. And one thing that strikes accomplish is to raise the salience of labor issues, or equity challenges more broadly, and build public support for legislative action on this front.
It may not be easy to show causation between social movements and legislative action, but that connection is always there in the background. Politicians are creatures of the zeitgeist. And movements can change that zeitgeist.
So, as far as I'm concerned, chalk up a big win in California for those "doomed" strikers.