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House Dems on brink of minimum wage victory

Thursday, June 20th, 2019

Sarah FerrisHouse Democratic leaders are on the cusp of a long-awaited victory on the party’s signature $15-an-hour minimum wage bill, overcoming months of sharp resistance from many of the caucus’ moderates.

Top Democrats are saying privately they’re confident that they are close enough to the 218 votes needed to pass it to bring the bill to the floor within weeks, according to multiple sources. It would mark a major political victory at the six-month mark of the Democrats’ majority.

Several one-time holdouts — including Rep. Terri Sewell (D-Ala.), who has championed a competing approach that would create a “regional” minimum wage — now say they will vote for the bill on the floor, though they are still looking for additional assistance for small businesses that may be hurt by the minimum wage.

The vote, which is expected shortly after the House returns from its Fourth of July recess, will put an end to a frenzied lobbying blitz by top Democrats to win over the caucus’s remaining skeptics, which had become a glaring example of the tensions between moderates and progressives.

House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn (D-S.C.) said in a closed-door leadership meeting Tuesday night that he secured roughly 213 votes, according to aides. Democrats believe the pressure of the roll call vote will be enough to squeeze the few remaining holdouts.

“I don’t have any doubt that we’re going to have the votes,” House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) told reporters Wednesday, though he stopped short of committing to a timeframe. “There are some folks who would like to see us do something to make sure the small business fears are allayed.”

The one lingering concern, according to people familiar with the discussions, is how to deflect potentially disastrous GOP attacks on the bill when it comes up for a vote.

Republicans are expected to use their procedural powers on the floor to force Democrats to vote on tricky issues related to the minimum wage — like protections for small businesses — that could further expose the caucus’s ideological divide.

It could also tank the entire bill. If Republicans successfully force any changes into the bill, scores of Democrats would likely flee, because progressive leaders have refused to support anything less than their hallmark $15-an-hour proposal.

The lead author of the bill, House Education and Labor Chairman Bobby Scott (D-Va.), had struggled for months to rally enough moderate Democrats behind the bill, with some members privately complaining of a “tone-deaf” approach.

But momentum began to shift in recent weeks, with leaders of the Blue Dog Coalition, Rep. Tom O’Halleran (D-Ariz.) and Stephanie Murphy (D-Fla.), helped to deliver votes from red-state Democrats in exchange for their own provision in the bill.

That compromise amendment, from O’Halleran, Murphy and TJ Cox (D-Calif.), will be included in the final bill, according to multiple aides. It would require the Government Accountability Office to conduct a study on the policy’s economic effects after roughly two years — which moderates see as a potential way to revisit the issue if economic conditions deteriorate.

Scott and his team also helped win over individual members with district-by-district data that showed the number of people who would get a raise, offering a counterpoint to the objections from some local businesses.

Top Democrats, including Hoyer, have vowed to hold a vote on the minimum wage bill before the August recess, under intense pressure from outside groups to deliver on a key plank of the progressive platform.

Scott and other Education and Labor members have argued behind the scenes for weeks that they have enough votes to bring the bill to the floor. They’ve said that some holdouts would only come out in favor of the bill if they were facing a roll call — a process that one Democratic aide described as a “game of chicken.”

Heather Caygle contributed to this story.

This article was originally published by the Politico on June 20, 2019. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Sarah Ferris covers budget and appropriations for POLITICO Pro. She was previously the lead healthcare and budget reporter for The Hill newspaper.

A graduate of the George Washington University, Ferris spent most of her time writing for The GW Hatchet. Her bylines have also appeared at The Washington Post, the Houston Chronicle and the Center for Investigative Reporting.

Raised on a dairy farm in Newtown, Conn., Ferris boasts a strong affinity for homemade ice cream, Dunkin Donuts coffee and the Boston Red Sox.

Congress makes minimum wage history, going the longest without an increase since 1938

Tuesday, June 18th, 2019

The federal minimum wage has been $7.25 an hour since July 24, 2009. That’s coming up on a decade, but it’s already hit an infuriating milestone: June 16 marked the longest the minimum wage had gone without an increase since 1938, when the U.S. passed its first minimum wage. Because Republicans are happy to have the minimum wage be a poverty wage—and it is a wage so low that a full-time job is not enough to pull a family of two above the poverty threshold.

The Economic Policy Institute’s David Cooper lays out what workers have lost in the near-decade since the last increase: $7.25 in July 2009 was equivalent to $8.70 now. That means a minimum wage worker has seen their purchasing power drop by 17%, or the equivalent of more than $3,000 a year. And still Republicans stand in the way of a raise.

The good news is that many states—31 of them, plus the District of Columbia—have raised their minimum wages above the federal level, and in some cases well above it. Already in 2019 alone, Illinois, New Jersey, Maryland, and Connecticut have passed laws gradually raising the wage to $15 an hour, while Nevada and New Mexico are on their way to $12. But that doesn’t excuse congressional inaction, let alone congressional inaction on a historic, record-shattering level. Democrats have proposed raising the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour, but it won’t happen as long as Republicans are in a position to block it.

This blog was originally published at Daily Kos on June 17, 2019. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Laura Clawson is labor editor at Daily Kos.

Bernie Sanders brings the fight for a $15 minimum wage to Walmart’s shareholders meeting

Thursday, June 6th, 2019

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) brought his battle for a $15 minimum wage and workers’ rights to Walmart’s annual shareholders meeting in Arkansas on Wednesday.

The Walton family controls just over 50% of the company’s stock. They are the richest family in the United States. Sanders has called out the Walton’s refusal to raise wages for its workers, asserting that it is “outrageous that the Walton family makes more in one minute than a Walmart worker earns in a year.”

At the invitation of Cat Davis, a longtime Walmart employee, Sanders went to the meeting to issue his demands in person: raise hourly wages from $11 to $15, put an employee representative on the company board, grant part-time workers the opportunity to work full-time, and stop obstructing workers’ efforts to unionize.

He addressed an enthusiastic crowd following the meeting. His audience booed when Sanders announced the current starting wages at Walmart and at the astonishing wealth of the Walton family.

“You have a company here that is owned by the Walton family … worth about $175 billion,” Sanders said. “One might think that a family worth $175 billion would be able to pay its employees a living wage. And yet, as you all know, the starting wage at Walmart now is $11 an hour. And people cannot make it on $11 an hour. You can’t pay rent. You can’t get health care. You can’t feed your kids or put gas in the car on $11 an hour. What we are also saying: It is a little bit absurd that many, many Walmart employees are forced to go on government programs like Medicaid or food stamps or public housing subsidized by the taxpayers of this country.”

In an interview with CNN, Sanders explained why he believes it is so crucial that workers be represented on the company’s board. “At the end of the day, working people have got to have some control over how they spend at least eight hours a day,” Sanders said. “They cannot simply be cogs in a machine. To be a human being means that you have some ability to control your life. And that includes your work life.”

If Walmart raises its starting wage to $15, it would be joining the likes of Amazon and Disneyland, both of which faced criticism from Sanders for paying workers poorly and, last year, started paying their workers $15 an hour. (Disneyworld employees will see that raise in 2021.)

Last November, Sanders and Rep. Ro Khanna (D-CA) introduced the Stop Walmart Act, “a campaign to raise wages at Walmart and other large, profitable corporations that pay poverty-level wages.” Under their legislation, large employers would be forbidden from buying back stock unless they paid all employees, including part-time workers and contractors, at least $15 an hour; allowed workers to earn up to seven days of paid sick leave; and made sure that the compensation of the highest-paid employee — probably, though not always, the CEO — was no more than 150 times the median pay of all employees.

This article was originally published at ThinkProgress on June 5, 2019. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Jessica M. Goldstein is a reporter for ThinkProgress covering culture and politics.

Power Connection: Connecticut AFL-CIO Empowers Fight for $15

Wednesday, May 22nd, 2019

In a monumental leap of economic justice last week, the Connecticut Legislature passed a law that increases the state minimum wage to $15 per hour by 2023. The increase brings Connecticut into parity with its neighboring states of New York, Massachusetts and New Jersey, which have passed similar increases. The victory comes as a result of unprecedented coordination among labor unions and allied advocates in the state that have been fighting for an increase for years.

“After years of grassroots organizing, Connecticut will finally catch up to our neighbors,” said Connecticut AFL-CIO President Sal Luciano. “We applaud the legislature for doing the right thing and raising wages for over 330,000 workers in our state.”

The victory was aided by a number of union members who have been elected to the state’s General Assembly. Of critical importance to the bill’s passage were the co-chairs of the assembly’s Labor and Public Employees Committee, state Sen. Julie Kushner, former director of UAW Region 9A, and state Rep. Robyn Porter, who was once a single mother who worked three jobs to make ends meet.

The state legislature also has a paid family and medical leave bill that is tentatively scheduled for a vote the week of May 20. “All these combined are going to make a huge difference in people’s lives,” Kushner said.

The significance of the measure is not lost on those who will immediately benefit from the increase. “When fast-food workers walked off the job nearly seven years ago demanding $15 and a union, nobody thought we had a chance,” said Joseph Franklin, a leader in the Fight for $15 coalition and a McDonald’s worker in Hartford. “Our movement is gaining momentum.”

The Connecticut AFL-CIO has been diligently working to elect union members and allies to office, and this victory shows that the path to power flows directly through the labor movement.

This blog was originally published at AFL-CIO on May 21, 2019. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Michael Gillis is a writer at AFL-CIO.

McDonald’s Retreat on Fighting Wage Increases Shows the Tide Is Turning

Thursday, April 11th, 2019

In March, the McDonald’s Corporation announced that it would no longer actively lobby against local, state and federal efforts to raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour. The move comes as Democrats in the U.S. House have thrown their weight behind a bill to raise the federal minimum wage from $7.25 to $15 per hour by 2024.

The decision by McDonald’s was made public in a recent letter sent from Genna Gent, vice president of U.S. government relations for McDonald’s, to the National Restaurant Association,  an industry group that represents more than 500,000 restaurant businesses across the country.

According to the corporate watchdog group, SourceWatch, the National Restaurant Association is a key lobbying group that has fought hard in recent years to block worker-friendly issues such as paid sick days and increases in the minimum wage. As Politico reporter Rebecca Rainey explained, losing McDonald’s as an ally in the fight against wage hikes serves as a “serious blow to the trade group.”

Despite the decision, however, the National Restaurant Association has stood by McDonald’s and recently called the company a “valued member” of its organization.

While initially seen as an upstart movement funded by labor union activists, the fight for a higher minimum wage appears to have moved squarely into the mainstream political landscape and is likely to remain a key campaign issue throughout the 2020 election.

Writing in the trade publication Restaurant Business in January, Peter Romeo declared that the “$15 minimum wage is already a presidential campaign issue.” Romeo noted that Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, a current contender for the nation’s highest office, has “already set the so-called living wage as an issue he’ll keep front and center.” In so doing, Sanders’ support, which he has expressed since at least 2015, could “prove a test for fellow senators who hope to land the Democratic nomination by winning the support of unions and blue-collar voters.”

Most of the major Democratic presidential candidates, from Kamala Harris to Elizabeth Warren, already support raising the minimum wage to $15. Recent polls also show a majority of American voters support increasing the minimum wage.

One of the groups that has been calling attention to labor and wage issues in the restaurant industry is the nonprofit Restaurant Opportunities Centers United (ROCU). Anthony Advincula, the public affairs officer for ROCU, tells In These Timesthat he feels hopeful after McDonald’s decision to stop lobbying against a minimum wage increase.

“We applaud McDonald’s efforts to not block the move to raise wages,” Advincula says, before expressing a note of caution. McDonald’s decision is a “good sign,” he insists, but not cause for celebration just yet. “We are not going to stop. The workers as well as the unions will never step backwards,” Advincula added, indicating that the fight now for groups such as his is to help ensure that the federal minimum wage bill becomes more than just a campaign talking point.

The Democrats in the House are largely in support of such a wage raise, but many in the Republican-controlled Senate have voiced their opposition to the proposed increase, meaning the Raise the Wage bill—the current legislation lifting the minimum wage to $15—could soon hit a dead end.

Regardless of these roadblocks, many observers see undeniable momentum on this issue. Companies such as Amazon, Target, Bank of America and Costco have independently committed to raising workers’ wages, perhaps in part to avoid the increasingly negative attention some have received over their employees’ inability to make ends meet while company profits soar.

Yet while the McDonald’s Corporation has stated that it actively fight wage increases, it still has not agreed to raise its own minimum wage. In her letter to the National Restaurant Association, Gent argued that the “average starting wage at its corporate-owned stores already exceeds $10 per hour,” according to a Politico report. That figure is higher than the federal minimum of $7.25 per hour. Gent also noted that individual franchise owners set the pay rate for their own locations.

The lack of commitment to an overall minimum wage increase from McDonald’s has led some to dismiss the company’s recent announcement as little more than a publicity stunt. Still, in an op-ed published in the Chicago Sun-Times, Christine Owens, Executive Director of the National Employment Law Project, stated that McDonald’s decision to stop participating in the campaign against minimum wage increases is a sign that such opposition is “untenable in today’s America.”

“There’s no doubt the company’s decision is a direct response to the thousands and thousands of McDonald’s workers who’ve taken to the streets, gone on strike and even gotten arrested to further their fight for $15 an hour and a union,” Owens wrote. She then tapped into the growing political and popular support for wage increases, noting that the company’s “move comes at a time when McDonald’s opposition to minimum wage increases has clearly become out of step with both the politics around wages and the actions of companies across the country.”

This article was originally published at In These Times on April 11, 2019. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Sarah Lahm is a Minneapolis-based writer and former English Instructor. She is a 2015 Progressive magazine Education Fellow and blogs about education at brightlightsmallcity.com.

Maryland workers to get a $15 minimum wage by 2025

Friday, March 29th, 2019

The Maryland legislature overrode Republican Gov. Larry Hogan’s veto Thursday to pass a $15 minimum wage law. The state is, the Washington Post reports, the first state below the Mason-Dixon line to pass such a law, and the sixth overall. It’s also the third state this year, which looks a little something like momentum—or the aftereffects of a blue wave.

Hogan’s veto was easily overridden, despite his attempt at a compromise of an ultimate minimum wage of $12.10 by 2022. The new law isn’t without its compromises, though: Tipped workers will still get a drastically lower minimum wage, and businesses with fewer than 15 employees will have until July 2026 to reach $15.

Around 573,000 Maryland workers will get a raise, according to the National Employment Law Project. Maryland follows California, Illinois, Massachusetts, New Jersey, and New York. And none of those states would have taken this step if fast-food workers hadn’t gotten out in front and organized and demanded something more than was considered politically realistic.

This blog was originally published at Daily Kos on March 28, 2019. Reprinted with permission. 

Raising the minimum wage works

Monday, March 11th, 2019

Hey, what do you know! It turns out that raising the minimum wage … raises pay for low-wage workers. Somehow, in the United States of America, this needs to be said.

The Economic Policy Institute looked at wage growth for the lowest-paid 10 percent of workers across the states, and it turns out that, for states that raised their minimum wage at least once between 2013 and 2018, it “was more than 50 percent faster than in states without any minimum wage increases (13.0 percent vs. 8.4 percent).” The effect was bigger for women than for men, which makes sense, since women are likely to be paid less.

Bar graph showing wage growth at the bottom 10% comparing states with minimm wage increases between 2013 and 2018 and those without.

This blog was originally published at DailyKos on March 9, 2019. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Laura Clawson is labor editor at Daily Kos.

We’ve Been Fighting for $15 For 7 Years. Today I’m Celebrating a Historic Victory.

Tuesday, February 19th, 2019

On Tuesday, Illinois became the first state in the Midwest to enact legislation phasing in a $15-per-hour minimum wage, giving 1.4 million workers a raise every year between 2020 and 2025.

Upon hearing the news last week that both houses of the Illinois General Assembly had passed the $15 minimum wage bill and would be sending it to Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s desk, I immediately thought back to just over seven years ago, when I was present at the creation of the Fight for $15 campaign.

It was late 2011. Centrist Democrats in Washington—more worried about closing the national deficit than addressing rising poverty—searched for a so-called “grand bargain” to slash the social safety net in exchange for raising taxes. But starting that September, a multitude of fed-up activists united under the banner of Occupy Wall Street to call out extreme economic inequality through direct action.

After spending several weeks camped out in New York’s Zuccotti Park as a participant in Occupy Wall Street, I returned home to Chicago and followed Newt Gingrich’s sage advice to “take a bath and get a job,” getting hired in December as an organizer with the community organization Action Now. A handful of other newly hired organizers and I were assigned to a campaign with the seemingly ambitious goal of raising Illinois’ minimum wage from $8.25 to $10 an hour.

From the start, the philosophy of the campaign, known only internally as “LWWO”
(“low-wage worker organizing”) was that lawmakers in Springfield would not prioritize raising the minimum wage unless workers collectively demanded it through mass action. A group of other newly hired organizers and I would roam the stores and restaurants of Chicago’s Loop and Magnificent Mile at all hours of the day, trying to get as many workers as possible to sign petition cards calling for a $10 minimum wage. A common response early on was that $10 would be nice, but was unrealistic.

As the campaign proceeded in early 2012, my fellow organizers and I realized we were part of something bigger than we had first assumed. The campaign, we learned, was being funded by the Service Employees International Union (SEIU). In the wake of Occupy—which had greatly contributed to the reinvigoration of class politics with the popular 99% vs. 1% slogan—SEIU’s top officials were exploring the possibility of a nationwide effort to unionize the food-service and retail sectors, site of the largest post-recession job growth.

The only problem was that union leaders, often averse to taking risks, have traditionally viewed low-wage, service sector workers as “unorganizable” due to the precarious nature of their employment and the intense anti-union animus of companies like McDonald’s. Our job was to gather enough contacts among downtown Chicago’s low-wage workforce to prove to SEIU officials that these workers could indeed be organized and that they should greenlight the proposed unionization effort.

Of course, managers at downtown stores and restaurants did not like us entering their place of business and talking with their employees about how wages were stagnating while the cost of living kept rising. My fellow organizers and I did not ask for permission, but would talk with workers any way we could—behind the manager’s back, on shift changes or smoke breaks, or walking into the kitchens of restaurants uninvited. We got kicked out of virtually everywhere, but we kept coming back. Most effective of all, we recruited some of the workers themselves to begin circulating our petition among their coworkers.

By the spring of 2012, we had gathered over 20,000 contacts. This, along with the simultaneous success of a similar effort in New York City, was enough to convince SEIU leadership to move forward with the organizing drive in both cities. Over the summer and into the fall, after months of one-on-one conversations and small group meetings, hundreds of fast-food and retail workers came together to found the Workers Organizing Committee of Chicago, while a similar organization was formed in New York.

In late November and early December2012—deliberately coinciding with the holiday shopping season—workers in both New York and Chicago held 1-day strikes to demand a $15-per-hour minimum wage and the right to form a union. The Fight for $15 was officially on.

I had left the campaign in late summer to go to graduate school, and was surprised to see that the wage demand had jumped from $10 to $15. But it made sense from a strategic standpoint. Ten, even twelve dollars would seem a lot more reasonable if workers were demanding fifteen. More importantly, it made sense from a moral standpoint. Workers needed and deserved at least a $15-an-hour wage.

In talking with so many retail and fast-food workers, I had come to know in vivid detail how exploited they truly were—not only in terms of being paid poverty wages by multibillion-dollar corporations and having to work multiple jobs or receive public assistance just to scrape by, but also in terms of being subjected to daily harassment, abuse and disrespect by managers and customers.

The Fight for $15 has never been solely about boosting workers’ wages, but also boosting their dignity. The demand for “15 and a union” in the early 21st century has become as iconic to the labor movement as the demand for the 8-hour workday was in the late 19th century. In the years since the campaign went public, there have been countless short-term strikes by low-wage workers across the country, and the globe.

While the Fight for $15 has faced justified criticisms for being too top-down and too focused on media attention, it has also scored numerous victories. Dozens of cities and states have raised their minimum wages, hundreds of thousands of Amazon employees now have a $15-per-hour minimum wage, and millions of workers in five states and the District of Columbia are now on the path to a $15-per-hour minimum wage. As progressives in Congress push for a federal $15 minimum wage, workers in low-wage sectors will have to keep organizing to win unions so they can bargain for increased pay raises, benefits and other workplace rights—the next horizon of the movement.

To me, the passage of Illinois’ $15 minimum wage bill this week is proof that no matter how “impossible” they may seem, bold initiatives aimed at dramatically improving the lives of working people are, in fact, achievable.

This article was originally published at In These Times on February 19, 2019. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Jeff Schuhrke is a Working In These Times contributor based in Chicago. He has a Master’s in Labor Studies from UMass Amherst and is currently pursuing a Ph.D. in labor history at the University of Illinois at Chicago. He was a summer 2013 editorial intern at In These Times. Follow him on Twitter: @JeffSchuhrke.

Illinois poised to be next state to pass $15 minimum wage

Wednesday, February 13th, 2019

After New Jersey made its move toward a $15 minimum wage official, the question was where next—and it hasn’t been a long wait to find out. The Illinois state Senate has passed a bill raising the state’s minimum wage from its current $8.25 an hour to $15 in 2025. The state House, which has a Democratic majority, needs to vote next. Assuming the bill passes the House, Gov. J.B. Pritzker is on board, telling reporters that “If you live in this state and put in a hard day’s work, you should be able to afford to put a roof over your head and food on the table.”

The bill raises the minimum wage to $9.25 an hour on Jan. 1, 2020, then to $10 on July 1, 2020. After that, it rises $1 every January until it reaches $15 in 2025. Unfortunately, it does not bring the tipped minimum wage up to $15 with everyone else, keeping that at 60 percent of the full minimum wage. The bill offers a tax credit for small businesses that will be gradually phased out.

Illinois’ minimum wage hasn’t increased since 2010, but Chicago and Cook County have increased theirs, which are currently at $12 and $11, respectively. The federal minimum wage remains stuck at $7.25, where it’s been for a decade. Congressional Democrats have introduced a $15 minimum wage bill, but Republicans are blocking it and will continue to do so as long as they can.

Speaking of New Jersey, the last state to head to $15, its legislature has sent a bill strengthening its paid family leave program to Gov. Phil Murphy’s desk.

This blog was originally published at Daily Kos on February 9, 2019. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Laura Clawson is labor editor at Daily Kos.

Trump economic adviser calls federal minimum wage a 'terrible idea'

Monday, November 5th, 2018

Larry Kudlow, one of Donald Trump’s top economic advisers, took some time the week before Election Day to call the federal minimum wage a “terrible idea.” Y’see, when it comes to the cost of living, “Idaho is different than New York. Alabama is different than Nebraska.” No! You don’t say! And in none of those places does working full-time at the current federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour allow a person to afford rent.

In fact, lots of states and cities have increased their minimum wages. Nebraska voters raised their state’s minimum wage in 2014—it’s now $9. New York’s minimum wage is now $10.40 an hour and slated to go up to $11.10 at the New Year. Idaho and Alabama are at that federal poverty wage of $7.25 an hour, but Republicans in Alabama stepped in to stop Birmingham from raising its minimum wage to $10.10. 

Local control is not what Kudlow is advocating, though:

“I would argue against state and local [increases],” Kudlow said. “But that’s up to the states and localities.”

Big of him, I guess, but if it’s something he’d grudgingly allow rather than something he’s arguing for, then the position that the federal minimum wage is a “terrible idea” boils down to “I don’t like the minimum wage at all and think companies should be able to pay as little as they can get away with.”

This blog was originally published at Daily Kos on November 3, 2018. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Laura Clawson is labor editor at Daily Kos.

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