Power & the Wage

This piece is adapted from remarks I gave at a recent NELP conference, on a panel about using minimum wage campaigns to build power.

 

When I was asked to be on this panel, my immediate reaction was, “we can’t use the minimum wage* to build power,” so really until yesterday, I’ve been struggling to decide what I was going to talk about.

I understand that, in a room full of people who have spent years working to increase the minimum wage, that may sound disempowering or diminishing—and I don’t mean to diminish the work of anyone in this room. Winning minimum wage increases is important for millions of workers, and we should keep running these campaigns—but we shouldn’t kid ourselves that we’re building power by doing it.

Real power—the kind of power I think everyone in this room is striving for—is built by moving people to take action to improve their own lives. We’ve talked a lot here about how the fast food and Wal-Mart campaigns have catapulted the minimum wage campaign forward—but I’m here to tell you, brothers and sisters, no one who works in poverty is going on strike for an issue advocacy campaign.

Building power is about being on offense.

I come out of the labor movement, and in my union, we talked a lot about the ways to get people to take huge risks. We had this shortcut way of talking about it—which is that you need anger, hope and a plan. Anger, because sometimes you need to remind people to be angry about the things that keep them from getting ahead, or keep them locked in poverty. Hope, because no one will take a big risk if they don’t think there’s something there to risk it for. And a plan, because a worker needs to see that there is some kind of logic behind the things that you’re asking them to do—things that might not seem obvious.

There were two things that folks on the first panel yesterday talked about that I want to highlight, a little bit, in my comments today.

Arun Ivatury talked about giving people a vision—and I think that is incredibly important, as we move forward in the design of these campaigns. Hope matters. People are willing to sit down in streets, and walk off their jobs in McDonalds all over this country, because they had a vision of something they might win—and that thing was $15 an hour and a union. They aren’t walking off the job to go do a legislative visit to ask a state rep to raise the state minimum wage. I’m not saying that we shouldn’t ask them to do that—but I am suggesting that until we connect it to a vision of a MUCH better life, we’ll have a hard time persuading them to do it.

And Ken Jacobs gave this great history lesson on the minimum wage that went back to 1912—over 100 years of fighting for the minimum wage. 100 years. And we’ve gotten to $7.25 an hour, nationally.

Some of you are kind enough to read my blog, and I have had some lovely comments here about my weekly email, Hack the Union—and so I hope no one is going to be shocked, when I talk a little bit about robots, because there was an exchange yesterday about automation & work that I kind of can’t let slide.

Right now, in New York, there is another conference going on, with a bunch of other super-smart people who are also thinking about the future for low-wage workers—it’s called the Digital Labor Conference, and it’s being held at the New School. If you live in NY, and you’re not doing anything this weekend—I’d advise checking it out, it’s free.

Those folks are having a whole different conversation than we are—but a lot of the conversation they are having would not be unfamiliar to the folks here. They’re talking about wage theft, and employers trying to shed the responsibility to pay for benefits, and all the things we care about. One of the main differences, though, is that they’re talking about how to do it in all the new jobs that are being created, in the largely freelance, or gig economy. Sometimes, I think we’re just the movement for the old economy—the one where people are still employees.

We can argue about whether automated transport is going to happen by 2020, or 2030, we can argue about whether the share of US jobs that are freelance or contract work will hit a majority in 2025 or 2035—but those changes are happening. The new economy is on us, and we’re still acting like all we have to do is get everyone back into the old economy. At the same time that we’re pushing to have flexible scheduling turn to predictable schedules, millions of employers across the country are trying to figure out how to do more with fewer employees, whom they pay for fewer hours.

I started my work life 30 years ago, in 1984. My first job was a minimum wage job, working in Joanne Fabrics in the Echelon Mall, in Voorhees, NJ, for $3.35 an hour. In the thirty years of my work life, we’ve essentially done a little more than double the minimum wage. As Ken told us yesterday, in essentially 80 years of having a federal minimum, we’ve added $7/hour to the minimum wage.

It took the labor movement 200 years to win the 8-hour day. Why on earth do we think we should wait to start planning a vision for how we’re going to protect workers from capitalism in the new economy until we actually have self-driving cars? Do we think that we can organize around such a profound shift in our economy five years out from every human delivery driver becoming unemployed?

We aren’t going to get power, until we articulate a vision that engages people about the things they’re angry at, and give them hope & a plan to achieve it. And it has to involve the people who are thinking about the new economy in much different ways than most of us are used to thinking about it.

We haven’t built power through our minimum wage campaigns, because if we had built it, we wouldn’t have suffered such devastating losses in the mid-term election. And in order to build the power that we need to win victories for workers, we need to use all the tools that exist to create leverage—we need to use elections, we need to use lobbying, we need to use street action, and we don’t always do those things. We don’t always have the capacity to do them, we don’t always have the right kind of funding to do them. But worse, we don’t always have the vision to do them.

We don’t have the vision to win things that involve substantially challenging the status quo–especially when we are invested in sustaining the status quo, because we helped to build the traditional employer-employee relationship. I would argue that the non-labor parts of the economic justice movement is in a place that the labor movement was in, thirty years ago. We are losing the traditional employer relationship, and instead of trying to redefine it, to protect as many workers as possible, we’re trying to push everyone back to the old way of doing things.

There are no doubt plenty of employers who should be pushed to reclassify their workers as employees–and plenty of workers who want the security of  a traditional job. But there are also plenty of workers in the world who’d like some security, coupled with the flexibility of being contractors. What are we doing to innovate public policy solutions to their problems? Why aren’t more of us talking to the folks who are at the Digital Labor conference, to come up with new ideas of how to move a more just society forward?

We will win increases in the minimum wage—and win things that help workers in the New Economy—as a side effect of building power, because we tap into people’s anger, we give them hope, and we show them a plan that makes sense.

 

 

*To clarify–I am, in this post, talking only about campaigns to raise the minimum wage to $10.10/hour–not campaigns that raise the wage to a liveable standard, like $15 or more per hour.

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