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August 2012, Week 2

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Activists Around the US Fight to Raise the Minimum Wage

by Matthew Cunningham-Cook

TheNation.com
August 10, 2012

http://www.thenation.com/article/169349/activists-around-us-fight-raise-minimum-wage

At New York City's John F. Kennedy International Airport,
namesake of that scion of noblesse oblige, there is a great
deal in the way of noblesse, as it is a hub for the world's
financial elite, but not much in the way of oblige. The
workers who provide security, handle baggage, clean, and
cook at JFK make an average wage of $8 an hour, too often
putting not just a plane ticket but any semblance of
financial security completely out of reach.

Prince Jackson, a security guard at JFK, makes $1,000 per
month. "Half of the money goes to rent," Jackson told a
crowd of union members and community activists gathered in
New York City's Union Square on July 24. "After all of my
expenses I don't have anything left..I can't explain how
much I need the minimum wage to increase."

The rally was part of a broader movement to demand an
increase in the minimum wage, which at the federal level has
stood stagnant at $7.25 since July 24, 2009. An estimated
4.5 million workers in the United States make at or below
the minimum wage, and the Bureau of Labor Statistics has
estimated that seven out of the ten fastest growing
occupations, such as in-home healthcare workers and retail
workers, are typically low-wage. A coalition of labor unions
and community organizations across the United States, led by
the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), coalesced
around the issue on July 24, with actions in more than 30
cities. Organizers have also protested companies that have
historically offered low-wage jobs, such as McDonald's in
Milwaukee and JC Penney in New York City, in addition to
members of Congress opposed to or ambivalent about a minimum
wage increase.

At the rally in New York City, more than 2,000 people
marched from Herald Square to a rally in Union Square,
demanding a minimum wage increase at both the New York state
and federal levels. The New York State Assembly passed a
bill that would raise the minimum wage to $8.50 an hour in
May, but the State Senate failed to take action before the
end of the legislative session in June. Activists are hoping
to pass the bill at the beginning of the next legislative
session in January.

In Saint Louis, 200 activists rallied outside of an
Applebee's restaurant to organize in favor of a Missouri
ballot initiative that would raise the state's minimum wage
from $7.25 to $8.25 per hour. A minimum wage measure
appeared on the ballot in the Show Me State in 2006, with
voters passing the measure 3-to-1. In an effort to raise the
state's wage again, activists collected more than 167,000
signatures in April in order to have the measure placed on
the general election ballot. They cleared a significant
hurdle on July 31 when the state's Supreme Court rejected a
lawsuit that would have struck down the measure, and
activists will find out later this week whether or not the
Secretary of State has found enough of their signatures
valid to qualify.

In Illinois, community organization Action Now picketed a
Dunkin Donuts, while teachers and community activists held a
press conference outside of a private equity firm partly
owned by Chicago heiress and school board member Penny
Pritztker, arguing that an increase in the minimum wage
would lessen poverty and as a result improve pupil
performance in Chicago schools. A plan to raise the minimum
wage stalled in the state legislature in May, but activists
there are hoping for further movement after the 2012
elections.

Cities are also tackling the minimum wage issue. In
Albuquerque, New Mexico, a group called Organizers in the
Land of Enchantment is collecting signatures in an effort to
put a measure to raise the minimum wage from the current
$7.50 to $8.50 per hour on its November ballot. And in San
Jose, California, a sociology class at San Jose State turned
a research project on the living wage into a movement to
increase the city's minimum wage from the state minimum of
$8 to $10 per hour. Students and community allies gathered
more than 36,000 signatures to have the measure placed on
the ballot. If passed, the ordinance would make San Jose one
of five cities in the nation with its own minimum wage.

On the federal level, US Senator Tom Harkin's Rebuild
America Act contains a provision that will raise the federal
minimum wage to $9.80 per hour by 2014, and index the
minimum wage to inflation afterwards. Because the federal
minimum wage is not indexed to inflation, the living wage
movement must play a constant game of catch-up, meaning that
Harkin's proposal to index the wage to inflation after 2014
would constitute a significant gain, allowing the movement
to focus on other issues that affect predominantly low-wage
workers. However, there is significant opposition to
increasing the minimum wage among Republicans and
conservative Democrats in Congress, and as of now the bill
has no cosponsors in the Senate. Rep. Rosa DeLauro's
companion bill in the house has just three cosponsors.

The living wage movement was bolstered by a brief released
in July by the National Employment Law Project. The brief,
"Big Business, Corporate Profits, and the Minimum Wage,"
revealed that 66% of low-wage workers in the United States
work at corporations with over 100 employees. Beyond that,
the vast majority of the 50 largest employers of low-wage
workers are profitable: 92%. Executive compensation averaged
out at an eye-popping $9.4 million, and the corporations
returned nearly $175 billion to shareholders in dividends
and buybacks in the past five years.

The national campaign to raise the minimum wage follows on
labor-backed campaigns to do the same in the mid-1990s and
mid-2000s. Despite the fact that most union members make
considerably more than minimum wage, labor leaders see the
increase in the minimum wage as affecting all working people
generally. Tammie Miller, chapter chair of the United
Federation of Teachers Family Child Care Providers, said at
the New York rally, "We are out here because we understand
what these workers are going through. A few years ago we
formed a union, and we understand that increased wages is
where they need to go. So we're out here in solidarity with
them and we stand with them."

One of the ways in which union-backed movements succeeded in
raising the minimum wage in 2004 and 2006 was by
aggressively funding ballot initiatives in places like
Florida and Ohio. However, unions' ability to fund these
kinds of campaigns has just been restricted by the Roberts
Court. In a 7-2 decision, the Supreme Court ruled in late
June that union members must opt-in as opposed to opt-out
for special dues assessments. These assessments are usually
issued in cases where a union must pursue an important issue
politically, such as raising the minimum wage.

Mass poverty is increasingly normalized in this country, as
the plight of the working poor is almost entirely excluded
from our national discourse. Organizers around the country
are forcing issues that affect the working poor back into
the conversation through these actions, demanding businesses
to pay wages that allow people to survive and revitalize
their communities. Let's see if Washington gets the message.

[Matthew Cunningham-Cook is a Summer 2012 intern at The
Nation, and an activist and reporter in the labor movement.
He has worked with Labor Notes, AFSCME, and the UAW.]

[Thanks to Matthew Cunningham-Cook for submitting this to
Portside to share with our readers.]

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