More than 300 progressive activists and labor leaders on Wednesday embraced “raising wages” as the theme of a series of battles in 2015 to reverse policies that have led to record levels of income inequality and a shrinking middle class.
“We are tired of people talking about inequality as if nothing can be done,” said AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka at the “Raising Wages” summit in Washington. “The answer is simple: Raise the wages of the 90 percent of Americans whose wages are lower today than they were in 1997. Families don’t need to hear more about income inequality – they need more income.”
“A lot of broad national economic statistics say our economy is getting better, and it is true that the economy overall is recovering from the terrible crash of 2008, said Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) during her keynote address at the summit. But a series of deliberate policy choices “have cut out hard-working, middle class families from sharing in this overall growth.”
“It wasn’t always this way, and it doesn’t have to be this way,” she said. “We can make new choices – different choices – choices that put working people first, choices that aim toward a better future for our children, choices that reflect our deepest values as Americans. One way to make change is to talk honestly and directly about work, about how we value the work that people do every day.”
As various speakers delved into that those choices should be, what became clear is that the “raising wages” theme is shorthand for a broad set of policy changes that must happen in order for the economy to work for working people.
They were laid out in a “Road Map for Raising Wages” that was distributed during the conference. Together, the elements form a framework that fits the triad that Richard Eskow put forward in Wednesday’s Progressive Breakfast Morning Message: “more jobs, better wages, and robust growth.”
The key pillars include restoring the freedom of workers to form and join unions, improving labor standards (through such steps as increasing the minimum wage, restoring overtime protections and ending wage theft), opposing “fast track” approval of trade deals and insisting that trade agreements protect worker and consumer rights, regulating Wall Street, investments in infrastructure and people to increase productivity, and – critically – ensuring full employment through both monetary and fiscal policies.
“A fundamental tenet of our moral covenant as a nation was that prosperity must be shared,” said Labor Secretary Tom Perez. “False choices would be rejected. It’s not the choice of I either take care of my shareholders or I take care of my workers. We can do both.”
He condemned policymakers who he said “believe there is dignity in working a 40-hour work week and [having to] get food from the food pantry.” And while a number of states and cities have acted to increase their minimum wage and have taken other steps to help promote the creation of good-paying jobs, “you shouldn’t have to win the geographic lottery to get a fair wage.”
The AFL-CIO plans to hold four state-level “Raising Wages” summits in four presidential battleground states – Ohio, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina – to, in Trumka’s words, “lay out the entire Raising Wages platform and establish state-based standards of accountability.”
The union also will starting today be going into seven cities – Columbus, Ohio; St. Louis; Philadelphia; Atlanta; San Diego; the Washington, D.C. metropolitan area, and Minneapolis, Minn. – to support local worker mobilization efforts in those areas.
“We have to talk about workers as an investment,” said Boston Mayor Marty Walsh during a panel discussion at the summit, and stop buying into the corporate mindset that workers are a cost. Key to that, he said, is organizing workers so they have a more powerful voice.
“We need to have a conversation like this in every city and town across the country,” he said.
Beyond the conversation, said Angie Wei of the California Labor Federation, we have to “organize, organize, organize.”
California offers a sense of what is possible when that happens. California Gov. Jerry Brown this week broke ground on a high-speed rail system. The rules that govern contracting for that rail system will mean that “every dollar spent is going to go to a good job,” Wei said.
Victories like that will only be possible when workers are educated, mobilized and emboldened to stand up for themselves and demand that they get a fair wage, and be treated with dignity and respect.