The Ceiling Can’t Hold Us — Low Wage Workers Organize

Across the nation, workers are rallying to hoist wages for the lowest-paid jobs into the reality of today’s economy. Since 2009, the federal minimum wage has remained $7.25/hour — compensation so inadequate that it holds back hardworking adults from advancing their educations, providing for their families, and participating fully in the economic life of their communities.

At United for a Fair Economy, we believe that low-wage worker organizing is at the forefront of the fight for economic justice. As spelled out in our guiding principles, "Jobs with dignity and living wages, where workers have the democratic right to organize and share the wealth produced by their labor" is at the core of a fair economy.

That’s why we together—UFE’s staff, partners, and our committed supporters like many of you reading this today—are devoting all available resources to support the work of low-wage worker organizing. In fact, it’s one of two major priorities enshrined in our new five-year strategic plan (unveiled in December).

So now and into the future, UFE will be providing groups on the ground with our renowned popular education curricula, acting as an ally in state and regional struggles, keeping our supporters informed and engaged, and encouraging high-wealth allies to speak out in cross-class solidarity. This is how we will leave our mark!

Why is a minimum wage increase important?

It’s high time we replace the outdated image of the minimum wage worker as a teenager living at home, working for pocket money after school. The median age of fast food workers, for instance, is now 29 years old, and 68% are the primary wage-earners for their families. This is a racial and gender justice issue, too: Minimum wage workers are disproportionately people of color, and almost 66% are women.

For the sake of our nation’s economy, too, a hike in the lowest wages is long overdue. If the minimum wage had kept up with inflation since 1968, it would now be about $11/hour. Had it kept up with productivity gains, it would be much higher ($16.54, according to the Center for Economic Policy Research), and if it had risen at the rate of CEO pay, well, we at UFE might very well be looking for work—that is, our work wouldn’t be necessary

Meanwhile, the vise of a patently inadequate minimum wage keeps workers from contributing to the economic recovery. According to a recent data analysis by the Center for American Progress,

Raising the minimum wage would be good for our economy. A higher minimum wage not only increases workers’ incomes—which is sorely needed to boost demand and get the economy going—but it also reduces turnover, cuts the costs that low-road employers impose on taxpayers, and pushes businesses toward a high-road, high-human-capital model.

Increasing the wealth of the super-rich doesn’t boost the economy, as they already have most of the goods they want — whereas when low-income people have more money in their pockets, they spend it. 

So what’s happening, and how is UFE involved?

A number of groups, including SEIU, are leading the "Fight for 15" campaign to raise the minimum wage to $15/hour in many cities. Some voters are out ahead: In Seattle, candidates for both the city council and the mayor’s office won in November on $15/hour minimum wage platforms and began working on the issue immediately, while in nearby SeaTac, WA, voters approved a $15 minimum wage, effective this year. (Unfortunately a recent court ruling, if upheld, will exclude airport employees from the new law.)

United for a Fair Economy is proud to do our part! UFE is working with SEIU to develop educational curricula for the "Fight for 15" campaigns, just as we did with the group’s earlier "Fight for a Fair Economy" campaign to organize fast food workers. It was the recent series of strikes by fast food workers that brought this issue fully into the public’s view and ignited the current wave of minimum wage organizing.

United for a Fair Economy is working with Interfaith Worker Justice to organize a faith-based workshop on inequality at their national conference in Chicago this June, a gathering of faith leaders, organizers, and leaders from worker centers around the nation. Looking to widen our involvement further, we have begun dialogues with other grassroots labor organizing groups about ways to work in partnership and strengthen the broader movement for wage justice.

Here at home, UFE is a member of RaiseUp Massachusetts, a coalition to raise the state minimum wage to $10.50 by 2016, and more importantly to tie it to inflation for the future. We’ve sent alerts to our supporters and spoke at a recent lobby day (where there was also a screening of Reich's Inequality for All). The wage hike has been passed by the MA House of Representatives, and the push is on to make sure the full package of changes is enacted this year.

There are minimum wage initiatives on the ballot or advancing in state houses in dozens of states this year. If you are organizing for low-wage worker justice in your community, let us know! We want to help.

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