The wave of "Fight for $15" demonstrations that swept the country Wednesday were in themselves a big deal – actions in more than 230 cities in the United States and in several foreign cities in which hundreds of thousands of workers walked off their jobs to protest low wages and their lack of bargaining power.
But these actions fit into what has become a much larger effort to repair and reshape an American economy that for workers is fundamentally broken. It puts on notice politicians who offer workers patches and palliatives to soften the blows of actions that have served to shrink the middle class and concentrate wealth at the top. This is not about remediation. The demand is for restructuring.
Remaking the economy so that workers once again reap the due rewards of their work – and have the power to demand dignity, respect and fairness in the workplace – is one of the key themes at the Populism2015 conference this weekend, jointly organized by National People's Action, Alliance for a Just Society, USAction and the Campaign for America's Future.
It is not by happenstance that the first two items on the platform of the Populism2015 platform, "Building a Movement for People and the Planet," relate directly to improving the plight of workers in today's economy. The first plank is a call to "Rebuild America for the 21st Century and Create Jobs for All," and the second is a demand to "Raise Wages, Empower Workers and Reverse Inequality."
During the conference, people involved in some of this week's "Fight for $15" actions will join with people active in other worker movements around the country, both locally and nationally. It's a convergence of several related mobilizations:
● Labor leaders and community activists have been pushing for more government spending on the nation's transportation, water and energy systems, and other public assets. But a central demand is that the public dollars spent on these projects pay a living wage, with preferences given to contractors that offer good wages, benefits and either have or would allow union representation. Organizations like Good Jobs Nation have been pressing President Obama to sign a "good jobs" executive order, and parallel efforts have been mounted in several states. Without a movement pressing this issue, it is more lively that upcoming infrastructure bills, such as a transportation reauthorization bill that Congress is expected to debate later this spring, will include language that would drive wages down and give at least tacit cover to contractors to suppress worker organizing.
● As some organizations focus on government spending to create jobs, the "Fed Up" campaign at the Center for Popular Democracy has rallied attention to the policies of the Federal Reserve, which has the power to shut down an economic recovery before it reaches the millions of workers who have yet to benefit from it. Last month the organization held demonstrations in eight cities calling on the Fed to honor its full employment mandate and not take action to slow the economy before the economy has a chance to absorb the people still looking for work. They especially want the Fed to ensure that segments of the population who have been left behind – such as African Americans, who have an unemployment rate that remains around 10 percent, twice that of white Americans – have a chance to catch up. The campaign has been setting up meetings with regional Fed presidents to send the message directly.
● The activism against fast-track authority for the Trans-Pacific Partnership is another pillar of this worker movement. Creating jobs for all with fair wages and worker bargaining power is almost impossible when multinational corporations can shift jobs to low-wage countries with few regulations to protect either workers or the environment. Wednesday was also the beginning of a "week of action" against fast track that was declared by a broad spectrum of organizations, coinciding with an expected full court press in Congress to introduce and pass a fast track bill. The actions will climax in Washington at the end of the Populism2015 conference on Monday with an 11:30 a.m. march from the AFL-CIO headquarters to the office of the U.S. Trade Representative near the White House.
These and other worker organizing efforts aim to send a message to political and economic elites that it will not be enough to mollify low-wage workers with incremental gestures. As sets of demonstrators chanted outside some McDonald's restaurants in response to an announced increase in base wages at restaurants that it owns but not at ones owned by its franchisees, "Hey McDonald's, let's be blunt; your raise is just a PR stunt."
Here's what real progress would look like: Workers with a full-time job would be able to put a roof over their head, clothes on their backs and meals in their stomachs without having to rely on public assistance.
The government would be investing heavily in the fundamentals of a 21st-century economy, replacing or upgrading crumbling roads, bridges and water mains, expanding and enhancing public transportation networks, supporting the development of a smart electric grid that can support the green energy technologies of the future, and bringing our schools and other public assets back to world-class conditions – creating millions of jobs in the process.
"High-road" companies that pay a living wage and allow workers to organize would be rewarded when they compete for taxpayer-funded work, not disadvantaged because other companies keep worker pay at rock bottom in order to underbid the competition.
Our trade policies would fuel a global race to the top for worker standards and environmental protection, instead of a race to the bottom where the only winners are the CEOs and shareholders of the multinationals.
Both our fiscal and monetary policies would hold that the most important deficit to be concerned about is the human deficit. When the overwhelming majority of Americans find themselves sinking while a small sliver are monopolizing all of the nation's economic gains, fixations on budget deficits are a cruel distraction. When entire segments of the American population is still experiencing double-digit unemployment, the reality of a jobs deficit must be more pressing than the imagined ghost of inflation.
Finally, real progress restores the balance of power between the so-called "job creators" and the people who do those jobs. America prospered most when workers were properly rewarded for the wealth they helped create, and had the ability to stand up for their dignity and humanity. It was conservative ideology and corporate greed that conspired to destroy that virtuous cycle. Progressive populists will continue the fights for higher wages and other laws that enhance the lives of working people, but the fundamental work of gatherings like the Populism2015 conference is nothing less than the transformation of the American economy so that people and planet come first.