New York, NY – Trade unionists and worker allies instrumental in disposing Donald Trump and delivering both the White House and U.S. Senate to Democratic Party control are feeling burned at the start of this year’s Women’s History Month celebrations.
Women constitute the overwhelming majority of frontline workers who continue to risk their lives, and the lives of their families during the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic. The inclusion of a $15 an hour minimum wage in the Biden’s signature $1.9 trillion “American Rescue Plan” could have helped lift tens of millions of poor and low-income women out of poverty.
Instead, the decision of eight Senate Democrats to oppose the measure, and the Biden administration’s failure to challenge arcane parliamentarian procedures supposedly prohibiting a $15 minimum wage in the latest coronavirus relief package — has left a bitter taste in the mouths of many who helped get Democrats elected and a fiery determination to press the fight until it’s won.
“During the presidential election we had over 1,700 [of these] laid off hospitality workers knocking on doors of three million voters in four battleground states — and that made a critical difference in the results,” UNITE HERE Local 23 President Marlene Patrick Cooper says.
Members of Local 23 — the overwhelming majority of them women of color suffering pandemic-related layoffs — went on to join others worker advocates in knocking on 1.5 million doors in the successful effort to elect Democrats Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock to the U.S. Senate from the state of Georgia.
“Our folks sacrificed time away from home and their families canvassing, knocking on doors, to get out the vote because their lives depended on it,” Cooper says. “Now, it’s time for us to continue to hold this administration accountable and push them to pass transformative legislation for working people.”
According to the Poor People’s Campaign: A Call for a Moral Revival [PPC], women constitute almost 60% of low-wage workers who have all been hit hardest by the pandemic.
UNITE HERE Local 355 member Rhiana Ford, a tipped server earning $5 an hour at the Ft. Lauderdale Airport in Florida, broke her foot during canvassing efforts in Georgia.
“I left my home, I left my [90-year-old] dad, I left my sister, I left my fiancé — I left everyone here and risked my life to go to Georgia during a pandemic to make sure I could have a better future, and I’m coming back home and we still don’t have $15? Why?” Ford says. “Does no one think we don’t deserve it; that the job that I do is so nothing?”
Recent history make it clear, that’s exactly what millionaire political elites on both sides of the aisle think.
Whether that’s Senator Joe Manchin who can’t bring himself to match the insufficient $12 an hour minimum wage Hillary Clinton advocated for way back in 2016 — or representatives like Michigan’s Tim Walberg, who last month moaned during a House Education and Labor Committee meeting that the aborted Raise the Wage Act “doesn’t deal with the realities of what it takes to run a business.”
The current $7.25 an hour federal minimum wage has not budged in more than 10 years. The sub minimum wage for tipped workers is just $2.13 and hasn’t moved in 30 years.
“I broke my ankle in Atlanta — and I’ll do it again for this $15 an hour,” Ford says. “I refuse to take pennies while people live in mansions.”
Overall, some 140 million Americans are poor or low-income. Women represent over 30% of the low-wage workforce, while roughly half of all U.S. children are subsisting near the poverty line.
“The two senators from Georgia got elected because of $15 — let’s be real about that,” PPC Co-Chair Rev. William Barber says. “If they had run on just dealing with racism and healthcare, they would not have made it.”
Barber is not surprised that not one Senate Republican backed the push for $15 an hour minimum wage, which if phased in over the next four years would only be worth about $13.
“We already knew what they were going to do because they stood with Trump,” Rev. Barber says. “But when eight Democratic senators — seven white men, one white woman — cross over and block $15 and a union, which is a compromise in and of itself, and hide behind a parliamentarian and say, it’s not the time, but I’m ready to do $11 over three years — we cannot accept that.”
Organized labor’s drive for a $15 an hour minimum wage has always be a modest proposal — even when it was first launched in New York City way back in 2012.
In 2016, 1199SEIU United Healthcare East — the largest healthcare union in the nation — backed Hillary Clinton over Bernie Sanders for president, along with many other powerful unions — even though Clinton failed to match Sanders’ commitment to a $15 an hour federal minimum wage.
At the time, 1199SEIU United Healthcare East President George Gresham, who was also then head of New York State Governor Andrew Cuomo’s “Campaign for Economic Justice” said that worker advocates would first have to win a $15 an hour minimum wage — and then fight for indexing it to inflation.
Today, indexing the federal minimum wage to productively alone would pay low-wage American workers more than $24 an hour.
“We don’t want to scare people,” Gresham told me five years ago. “First we’ve got to get a living wage established. Then we fight to index that going forward into the future.”
Despite some crucial pandemic aid, worker advocates who stumped hard for the Democratic ticket insist they’ve earned the right to criticize the $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief package where it fails to deliver for working people
“We know how to say what part of it is good; we know how to say what part of it is bad — and we know how to say what part of it is nice. But at the end of the day, the bill did not go far enough,” Cooper says.
Sunita Viswanath, another PPC member and co-founder of Sadhana and Hindus for Human Rights, is also upset about the relief bill President Joe Biden recently signed.
“I am so disheartened that even after we elected the Democrats back to power — this is the side that is supposed to care about the poor and equity — we’re still fighting this fight like this,” Viswanth says. “There’s a lot in the stimulus bill has a lot in it that’s good — and we applaud that. We like the expanded child tax credit — but how does it make sense to give a child tax credit, and give the parents poverty wages? The stimulus package as it stands is not the best we can do.”
Shailly Gupta-Barnes, policy director for the PPC and The Kairos Center, challenges the narrative that the child tax credit contained in the “Rescue America Plan” has the power to cut child poverty in this country by half.
“It is not, on its own, enough to address child poverty, let alone cut it in half,” she says.
Mary Kay Henry, head of the Service Employees International Union [SEIU] — the union behind the nearly decade-old Fight for $15 movement — says this, in fact, is “not a time for celebration” and that the eight Democratic senators who voted against a $15 minimum wage need to “get with the people of their state.”
“We will win a $15 hour minimum wage and we will win every fight for justice that is part of this incredible fusion movement,” says Henry.
Traditionally, organized labor has, by and large, backed establishment Democrats even in the face of increasingly diminishing returns. But when it comes to a $15 minimum wage, the Democrats should not expect trade unionists and their allies on the front lines to “dance and be happy.”
“We cannot,” says Cooper. “We will not stop and we are not going away.”