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.”

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