There were no formalities when we interviewed Rep. Keith Ellison, co-chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, and activist Joseph Geevarghese on the crowded and clamorous floor of this month’s Netroots Nation conference. Ellison made his position clear as soon as we began rolling tape, saying, “The real story today, in my humble view, is not income inequality.”
“The real story is what we’re doing about income inequality.”
“There are green shoots popping up all over this country,” he added, citing worker-driven organizations like Good Jobs Nation.
Throughout the course of the conversation, Ellison and Geevarghese listed progressive movement successes, past and present. Added Ellison:
“We’re not in confusion about who is leading the drive for a fair economy. It is the workers. As members of Congress, these are our constituents. We’re doing nothing but heeding the call of the people … We in the Progressive Caucus see ourselves as the legislative arm of this wave of progressive action.”
We asked Ellison about the (probably apocryphal) Franklin D. Roosevelt story, in which that president met with progressive organizers and told them, “I agree with you. Now go out there and make me do it.”
“We’re not saying ‘make us do it,’” answered Ellison. “We’re saying ‘what’s our assignment now?’”
We asked Geevarghese and Ellison the question we’ve asked other politicians, activists and leaders: Are the days of the prosperous middle class we knew in the fifties and sixties gone?
“Those days can be restored,” said Ellison, “with some stout organization that’s going on now.”
“The way the American middle class was built in the ’50s,” added Geevarghese, “started in the ’30s and ’40s with widespread strikes and sit-downs and walkouts …”
If progressives in Congress are waging a joint struggle with workers, its first front has been the minimum wage. With a Republican majority adamantly opposed to change and Democratic leadership that has often been less than fully engaged, the struggle has led to a series of worker actions around the country – most notably among fast-food and Walmart workers.
The action has recently shifted to the Federal government, which spends $1 trillion annually to employ five million workers through contracts for concessions, services, goods, loans, and grants. Good Jobs Nation reports that the federal government is the nation’s largest employer of low-wage workers. Geevarghese noted that momentum for federal action was built during a series of worker actions at Washington locations that included the Pentagon, the Ronald Reagan Building, the Old Post Office, Union Station, and the American History, Air and Space, and Natural History museums.
In the video, Ellison contrasted recent government policy with FDR’s insistence that government jobs pay a good wage. These workers actions, along with expressions of support from a variety of progressive allies, helped build the momentum – and the pressure – that led to President Obama’s recent executive order requiring all federal contractors to pay a minimum of $10.10 per hour. (The order takes effect upon renewal of each contract.)
The next front in the living-wage struggle, at least on the federal level, is likely to take the form of an attack on wage theft. This is the practice of systematically robbing low-wage employees of earned income with tactics that include fraudulently assigning hours to different locations to bypass overtime laws and pressuring front-line supervisors to falsify records by lowering the number of hours worked. (Former McDonald’s shift supervisor Kwanza Brooks told us how she and other managers conducted wage theft in the clip below.)
Wage theft is a far greater problem than most people realize. Researchers in Los Angeles County found, for example, that workers there were losing $1 billion per year to it. Losses per worker came to more than $2,000 per year on annual income of just over $16,500.
Good Jobs Nation estimates that 35 percent of the nation’s top 100 wage-stealing corporations are federal contractors. In a hearing held by the Congressional Progressive Caucus last Thursday, Congress heard from workers who had been defrauded and had been subjected to illegal retaliation after raising objections (from employers who continue to enjoy lucrative government contracts).
Ellison and Geevarghese noted that the executive order that raised the baseline wage for Federal workers appears to have had a ripple effect. The mayor of New York City and the leader of the Cherokee Nation have both subsequently issued similar orders, and the wage floor has since been raised at Delta Airlines, American Airlines and The Gap.
While they praise the president for his $10.10 executive order, observers have pointed out that he could do more for federal workers with additional orders. From the New York Times “Taking Note” blog:
“(The President) could … require preferential treatment in the federal bidding process for employers who offer better pay and benefits than their competitors. He could use executive orders to improve compliance among contractors with wage and safety standards … He could require companies that seek to do business with the federal government to have a record of fostering and maintaining labor peace …”
Times contributor Teresa Tritch also noted that the $10.10 per hour requirement could be “expanded to cover businesses and workers that provide the government with goods, including uniforms, food and other supplies.”
Tritch offers a good summary of needed actions. If the recent past is a predictor, they’ll only become reality if working Americans first demand them – and then find elected allies like Ellison to help make them a reality.