Raising the minimum wage is an idea whose time has come. Long an important grass-roots demand, campaigns to raise the wage are taking place throughout the country. Even the national Democratic Party has recognized it as it winning issue that its candidates should embrace. Yet, although a minimum wage boost is long overdue, an increase from $7.25 an hour to $10 an hour will not bring the working poor out of poverty. Nor will it restore the type of labor rights and collective organization that built the American middle class in the mid-20th century.
This dilemma raises a critical question: How do we use the enthusiasm around this issue to promote a more robust and thoroughgoing vision of economic justice?
Sarita Gupta is one progressive leader who is searching for an answer to this question. Gupta is executive director of Jobs With Justice, a national organization whose mission is to “win real change for workers by combining innovative communications strategies and solid research and policy advocacy with grassroots action and mobilization,” according to its web site. A dynamic contributor to the effort to build coalitions between labor and community, Gupta has led Jobs With Justice since 2007 in campaigns alongside employees at Walmart for better treatment, to help extend labor law protections to domestic workers and to defend immigrant workers from deportation.
In a recent interview, I talked with Gupta about connecting today’s minimum-wage demands to a more far-reaching strategy to counter inequality. In our discussion, Gupta emphasized a new generation of organizing tactics, such as the Retail Action Project’s Just Hours campaign for workers to be guaranteed enough hours on the job to have a living wage. This is the sort of tactic that could contribute to a comprehensive strategic agenda for economic justice. The following is a condensed and edited version of our conversation.
Amy Dean for Truthout: Why are we encountering a national movement to raise the minimum wage at this moment?
Sarita Gupta: I think we’re seeing a rise of low-wage workers who are demanding a conversation about economic inequality. One way to address this would be raising the minimum wage.
People just can’t make it in today’s economy. There’s a growing population of people who have to make ridiculous choices between paying for food or paying for rent or paying for health care – basic necessities. With the help of a lot of good organizing that has happened over the years around issues of wages, I really think we’ve reached a point [of being able to see how] this has impacted so many people.
The Democratic Party has recognized the minimum wage as an issue that should be a priority for its candidates. Is this a good development? Is it just sheer opportunism? Or is it something else?
I think it’s a good thing that more elected officials or candidates are talking about the need for raising the minimum wage. What I worry about is that the conversation begins and ends with raising the minimum wage. It’s really, really important for politicians today to understand that more and more Americans are fed up and really cannot survive in this economy the way it is. The need for them to look at policy changes beyond the minimum wage is going to be really critical.
Two Workforces On the Move
What has Jobs with Justice’s role been in fanning the flame around the minimum-wage issue?
A few years ago at Jobs With Justice, we made a decision that there were two sectors of the workforce that we wanted to dive into more deeply, because we felt we could push for new jobs to be created and make sure these were good-quality jobs. Those were the retail sector and the care sector.
We actually dug in pretty deeply with the United Food and Commercial Workers Union (UFCW) to talk about retail workers at Walmart. These workers are organizing through the Making Change At Walmart campaign and forming as OUR Walmart (the Organization United for Respect at Walmart). We made the decision to broaden the definition of who a Walmart worker is – to include logistics workers, the workers along the supply chain, in the warehouses, that are making the products that are being sold. They are a broader set of workers who fundamentally need to bargain with Walmart for better wages and working conditions.
The reason I use that example of retail is because if you look at Black Friday from 2012 to Black Friday 2013, the discourse dramatically shifted. From 2012 being, “Are these workers legitimate?” to, in 2013, really being about the responsibility of one of the largest private-sector employers in the US. What does it mean that their employees can’t make enough money and depend on social safety net programs that are also being gutted today? What’s the role and responsibility of major corporate forces like Walmart?
This isn’t just about the minimum wage. It’s actually about a much broader conversation about wages and the responsibility of government, the responsibility of corporate actors in our economy to help our economy thrive.
Then you add the care sector in for us. Many care workers have historically been excluded from the Fair Labor Standard Act. But now, based on last year’s regulatory change that President Obama signed, home care companions for the elderly and people with disabilities have gained basic workplace protections – including the right to get minimum wage and overtime protection. What care workers need is not only for their work to be valued and visible – but also to be paid a decent wage, so that they can have a decent standard of living.
What does it mean in our economy to have food workers who put food on our table at restaurants but can’t put food on their own tables? Or care workers who care for our loved ones, but who can’t afford to care for themselves or their own families? There is something fundamentally wrong here.
A Next Generation of Living Wage Policies
How does winning a higher minimum wage affect domestic workers specifically, given their exclusion from the NLRA?
What we’re finding is that, with shifting employment structures, we have a growth of contingent labor across the board. So with the growth of part-time workers, temporary workers, subcontracted workers, what’s happening more and more is that workers are falling outside of basic labor protections and standards.
There’s actually a need for us right now to create a whole new generation of smart policies. These are about raising wages but also about a whole slew of other issues that would help more contingent labor and low-wage workers to have a chance at a decent standard of living.
What that means is we need to be organizing wage campaigns, campaigns like Just Hours [which would mandate fair scheduling of work hours] together in much smarter ways. Our wage campaigns again can’t just be about the minimum wage. We’re experimenting on this front with new kinds of wage ordinances across the country.
At the end of the day, that’s why we don’t believe the minimum wage is the only solution. This moment of raising the minimum wage we think is an opportunity to actually push open a much broader set of reforms that we need right now.
Raising the minimum wage is important, but it has limitations with respect to labor rights or the restoring of the place of worker organizations in the economy. I’m wondering how you think labor and other economic justice groups should approach this issue?
Let me talk about how we’re thinking about this in a place like San Francisco. Here’s a city where there’s an enormous retail sector, including food service. It’s stable and it’s a growing employment sector in San Francisco. But we know the jobs are predominantly poor-quality – with low wages, part-time schedules, limited employer-provided benefits and fundamentally a lack of a voice on the job. There are 116,000 workers in this sector in San Francisco, in the Bay Area, yet here’s a city that actually has the highest minimum wage in the country.
In San Francisco, working together with labor and community partners in a deeper way, how could we move some really innovative policy reform? What we’re trying to do there is pass what we’re calling a “formula retail ordinance.” It’s like a living-wage law covering all chain stores and restaurants. It can serve a model for other areas, just as the Bay Area’s local minimum wage, paid sick leave and universal health care ordinances have.
The idea would be to create a much stronger set of local labor standards. We know, for example, that in San Francisco the minimum wage is set to increase to $10.74 an hour this year. Yet we know the cost-of-living crisis is really urgent. Most people still can’t survive on $10.74 an hour. So we want to move this formula retail ordinance, which would essentially index wages for retail, food service and other low-wage occupations to 125 percent of the minimum wage.
Couple that with moving a Just Hours strategy, which would force employers to give each worker enough hours on the weekly schedule for them to make a living wage. There are a number of folks at Retail Action Project who are looking at issues across the board like Just Hours to look at scheduling reforms.
What we’re also moving in San Francisco is a whole new effort to pass a “bad employers tax” or “bad employers fee.” We’re working with groups like National People’s Action, the Guest Workers’ Alliance and a number of economists on this. In a locale like San Francisco, if you have major employers who are not willing to bargain and negotiate with workers in their work site, then can we create a public entity that would collect a bad employers tax or fee from them. The pool of money from this could be used to fund some of the services and safety-net programs that low-wage workers depend on.
The goal is actually that all these strategies are needed to fundamentally create some new on-ramps for how we think about organizing workers. Because our traditional methodology of organizing workers is no longer relevant for too many workers, given the changes in employment structures. Can we imagine bargaining in a new way? Bargaining by geography, bargaining by sector, bargaining by region?
The minimum-wage fights become important launchpads, because you begin a discourse on wages. You talk about setting the minimum. You’re setting the floor. But what you want to do is then build off of that to say, “Actually we want to have the ceiling be much higher, and so here are some opportunities in different sectors of how we might do that.” You start to re-imagine bargaining.
Toward Economic Democracy
Your work and the work of others have made the minimum wage seem achievable for many, yet Congress is deadlocked. How do you address this?
I think we all know we have a broken political process. We’ve got to be smart about the ways in which we use our political power and our voice in this moment.
What we’re telling many of our members is that, in addition to pushing for the national minimum wage, folks should be looking for opportunities at the local level. There are a lot of states moving state minimum wage campaigns right now. There are a number of cities looking at smart, thoughtful ordinances, like those I described in San Francisco. Folks should really be pushing their elected officials to pay attention to the multiple ways in which we are trying to find solutions to the income crisis. As voters, it’s important for folks to say to their elected officials, “We need you to raise the minimum wage and to know that’s not the end of the story here. There’s more change across the country that’s needed.”
People being able to tell their stories of their own experiences [and those of] their neighbors, their friends, family members is really critical in this moment. We’re in an economy where we have a safety net that was created based on an economy where people had access to jobs and only experienced short bouts of unemployment. Today, the situation is the opposite. So we actually need to reimagine our safety-net programs to catch up with where workers are today.
Who are the big opponents that people should be aware of in terms of in these campaigns?
Walmart is a huge player in trying to combat and oppose much of what we’re pushing for right now. And a number of the fast food companies are behind things like “Worker Center Watch (a website devoted to attacking worker centers).” We need to understand that these are forces aren’t just attacking workers’ centers. They’re fundamentally attacking the notion that people should have a decent standard of living.
I feel like the fight for raising the minimum wage and all these wage campaigns are actually part of creating a long-term vision around what economic democracy looks like and needs to be. That’s defined by working people and low-income people in this country. My hope is that people begin to see these fights not as separate fights, but actually in relationship to one another, to ultimately build the kind of economic democracy that we want and need.
Amy B. Dean is a fellow at The Century Foundation and principal of ABD Ventures LLC, a consulting firm that works to develop innovative organizing strategies for social change groups. Dean is coauthor, with David Reynolds, of A New New Deal: How Regional Activism Will Reshape the American Labor Movement. Dean has worked for nearly two decades at the cross section of labor and community-based organizations, linking policy and research with action and advocacy. You can follow Amy on Twitter @amybdean, or she can be reached via www.amybdean.com.
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