Meet the Part-Time Philadelphian Who Used Facebook to Make America Pay Attention to the Minimum Wage

And if you aren’t paying attention yet, you probably will be by the time Rafael Rivero is done. Washington and the media sure are.

Rafael Rivera

Rafael Rivero. Photo | Sandy Smith

The minimum wage was last raised in 2009, when it reached its current level of $6.25 an hour under legislation approved in 2007.* Had it been steadily raised to keep pace with inflation, the 1969 minimum wage of $1.60 an hour — which was sufficient to keep a family of three above the poverty line — would be $10.56 an hour today.

That hadn’t caused much concern over the intervening years.

This year, that’s not been the case. A bill that would have raised the minimum wage to $9 an hour is now one that would raise it to $10.10. And stories about the plight of low-wage workers now fill the airwaves, the print media and cyberspace.

It all seems to have come out of nowhere. But that’s not the case. Someone put the issue on the public radar.

That someone is a fellow named Rafael Rivero. A Washingtonian who divides his time between there and South Philly, Rivero shifted the public conversation using only a laptop computer, image editing software and Facebook.

With his twin brother, Omar, Rivero has launched several Facebook pages and a website that aim to do for the Democratic Party what the Tea Party has done for the Republicans, namely, yoke them more firmly to a specific vision and values. In the case of the Tea Party, the vision and values are those of smaller government and lower taxes; in the Riveros’, they’re activist government and egalitarian values.

Rivero first learned the power of social media to drive public debate when he launched an online campaign to support an effort to advance immigration reform legislation by encouraging managers of Facebook pages to display a message of solidarity with undocumented immigrants on their profile pages.

“It was amazing how quickly and effectively I was able to change the conversation on Facebook,” he said. “This was an issue that progressives hadn’t yet embraced.” That led him to consider other issues ripe for consciousness-raising.

He settled on the idea of an $11-an-hour minimum wage. Through crowdfunding, he was able to raise the money to attend this year’s Netroots conference, an annual convention of progressive activists who organize online, in June. There he sought support for making a minimum wage hike a rallying point for progressives.

At Netroots, Rivero met Matthew Hanson who runs Being Liberal, an organization devoted to reclaiming liberalism as a source of pride; its Facebook page has nearly 1 million subscribers. (If you want to understand where people are getting their information from, consider this: Being Liberal’s Facebook page is updated several times a day. Its associated blog last got new content on January 1 2013 year.) Hanson focuses on liberalism as a cultural project while Rivero’s focus is political, but each saw potential in working together.

“I said, ‘Matthew, I need your help,’” Rivero said. “‘The next big thing will be the minimum wage.’” At the time, fast-food workers were staging rallies to support higher wages, which Rivero said made the issue ripe for raising.

“He didn’t see it that way,” he continued. “He said, ‘Do people even care about this issue? Is anyone talking about it?’ Matthew was skeptical at first, but I said, ‘You have nothing to lose.’”

So Rivero created a profile image “In Support of an $11 Minimum Wage”, reminiscent of the equal sign that proved compelling for the Human Rights Campaign’s push for marriage equality. “I went and lobbied 10 people personally, asking them, ‘Just change your profile picture for a day or two,’” he said. On the date he had picked for the switch, 60 Facebook pages changed their profile images to promote the $11 minimum wage.

Rivero’s own Facebook page for the campaign, “Raise the Minimum Wage,” launched in mid July. From just more than 2,000 unique visitors on launch day, the page has taken off, with daily visitors climbing as high as 5 million. Since its launch, more than 81 million unique visitors have viewed content from the Raise the Minimum Wage page on Facebook, and the page itself has 96,000 subscribers — “phenomenal growth for a Facebook page,” he said.

To further spread the word, River0 created memes that other pages could use to show their support without diluting their own branding. He also produced a steady stream of images and messages intended to show how corporations and their shareholders were fattening their wallets while their workers went on public assistance.

“I swear, when I started this, I was screaming into a void,” he said. “I just happened to hit the issue of the moment.”

Events in the news also helped his campaign along, such as the story of the Walmart whose managers organized a charity drive for store employees who couldn’t afford a Thanksgiving dinner.  But, he said, “without being amplified on social media, those stories would have gone nowhere. Now entire TV programs are being devoted to the minimum wage.”

All of his activity, Rivero said, has effectively shifted the debate over the minimum wage to the left.  “Polling data show that support for raising the minimum wage rose 10 to 15 percentage points this year. I think it’s an unprecedented shift in public opinion” in such a short time frame. “I think the fast-food workers had something to do with it, I think the missteps by McDonald’s and Walmart had something to do with it, but I think a lot of it had to do with flooding Facebook with information.

“In his State of the Union message in January, President Obama was only calling for a $9 minimum wage,” he said. “Now why would he go from $9 to $10.10? It’s because I shifted the focus of the debate with the $11 minimum wage campaign.”

He may well be right: recent research by the Pew Research Center and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation revealed that Facebook has become an important “news outlet” in its own right. Almost two-thirds of U.S. adults use the site, and of those, about half get news from it. That translates to about 30 percent of all U.S. adults.

Rivero’s influence on the influential themselves is indirect, however: He reaches the people who have the ears of the powerful, and they in turn whisper into those ears. “The staffers on Capitol Hill, they’re in their 20s,” as is he. “They’re the ones helping craft legislation. The politicians may not use Facebook, but their staffers do.”

“I can tell you how I know my campaign has been successful,” he added: “There’s a Republican parody page ‘In Support of a $0 Minimum Wage.’”

But the campaign isn’t over, he said. “When [the bill to raise] the minimum wage is brought up again in 2014, I’ll contact all those pages that changed their profile picture in 2013 and ask them to change it back. And I’m confident they all will.

“The American people are on our side on this issue, increasingly so. It’s only Washington that’s not.”

Follow @MarketStEl on Twitter.

*An earlier version of this story claimed incorrectly that the minimum wage hadn’t been raised in 30 years.

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  • MystiKasT

    Minimum wage is not intended to be a career position, just a stepping stone. If you are trying to provide for your family on minimum wage, somewhere along the line, you messed up — multiple times. Now bite the bulllet and work harder.

    • stp

      Majority of New Jobs Pay Low Wages, Study Finds

      “While a majority of jobs lost during the downturn were in the middle range of wages, a majority of those added during the recovery have been low paying, according to a new report from the National Employment Law Project.

      The disappearance of midwage, midskill jobs is part of a longer-term trend that some refer to as a hollowing out of the work force, though it has probably been accelerated by government layoffs.”

    • TKnTexas

      Maybe a family of three shouldn’t expect to live on the 40 hour week at Minimum Wage. But a single person should be able to do that, while going to college to better himself. It was that way in 1975 when I finished Jr College. I was able to pay for a 1bedroom apt, have a car (with insurance), and support myself. I even paid for tuition and books at LSU.

      In 1984, the accounting clerks where I worked made $16 an hour. Hotel rates were $75 or so. In 2005 accounting clerks were making $15 an hour, hotel rates were over $110 an hour.

      Minimum wage sets a boundary for all wages. I am sure those making $15 were glad to not be getting minimum. But as the hotel rates were going up, so has everything else, except pay rates. And, except for payrates of CEOs.

    • Brian K

      The very fact that we track an unemployment rate should tell you something: There are people who want jobs who can’t find them. That being the case, how can you tell working people that their low pay is in their own hands?

    • athena

      Mysti your obvious lack of education on this matter is clear.

    • disqus_RJRBNjjwaF

      MysitkasT, take a class in economics. It is apparent you do not understand the problem.

  • The Silent Majority
    • imapayne

      Why don’t you educate yourself on information other then the crap you call truth that has been debunked

  • Elizabeth

    Let’s tackle a few issues at once here. Food Stamps, Social Security, Extended Adolescence, and Abortion.
    “40% Of US Workers Now Earn Less Than 1968 Minimum Wage”. Forty freaking Percent. That means, working 40 hours a week, every single person in that 40% would qualify according to income guidelines for food stamps if they were single with no dependents. Scary, huh?
    We also have fewer people paying into Social Security because of a falling birth rate. We hear our whole lives that responsible people only have as many children as they can afford, therefore a lot of Americans aren’t having as many children as they’d like to or are choosing to not have any children (sometimes a financial decision, sometimes not). The US is sitting at a 1.89 total fertility rate, meaning the average woman is expected to have fewer than 2 children in her reproductive lifetime (Optimum is around 2.1, no growth and no decline). There will be more grandparents than grandchildren, something unheard of when our parents were growing up. Our population *only* continues to grow due to lengthening lifespans and immigration. Maybe a small increase in pay to both members of a two-income household means the difference between choosing to have one more baby and choosing not to. One less child here, one less there, it all leads to a terrible disaster of an aging population.
    So what do you do if you work a 40 hour week for a living and still can’t afford to live on your own? You crash in mom’s basement until you either graduate from college with a ton of debt (and you still may not be able to afford that apartment) or you get enough experience to make manager and move out (although you’d probably still qualify for assistance). Maybe this is why cohabitation is so popular now.
    They say 57% of women who get abortions are “low-income”. I’m wondering exactly how they got the statistic (I can’t read the source) but I’d guess that a lot of them were for motivations tied to finances. Can’t afford a baby, need to complete college to make enough money to eventually afford a baby, ect, ect. Even if you can technically afford to have a child by collecting welfare, its embarrassing. No one wants to do it. Even at $11/hr you might still qualify for food stamps once you have a baby to care for. Raising minimum wage won’t eliminate this problem but big CEOs aren’t going to step in and pay for your daycare either. Plus, its easier to pay your birth control co-pays, or pick up a box of condoms when you have a few bucks in your pocket. If you get knocked up anyway and he walks out (or she gets knocked up and drops a baby on your doorstep), a higher minimum wage might also mean a bigger child support check.

    All we’re really asking is that the minimum wage be worth what the minimum wage used to be worth. It doesn’t need to be enough to raise a big family as a single income but it does need to be enough that people can have an okay life and have a chance in this world.

  • disqus_RJRBNjjwaF

    We should really be working on an Amendment to the US Constitution that Guarantees a Living Wage. We need to stop playing political football and take it out to the hands of Congress. A yearly adjustment will ensure that working folks need less government assistance and will even, possibly pay taxes, contribute more to Social Security and Medicare. It would put more money back into the economy and be a boost for companies that rely on people buying their products (that would be all of them, right?). Most of all, important to a lot of us, work would once again have dignity. Those who chose not to work because it does not pay, may actually want to work, again. Let’s stop the madness and make it a right.