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24 October 2014

How the living wage movement is re-energising the US left

Rather than waiting for a presidential knight or knightess in shining armour, progressives are getting back to basics and organising from the bottom-up.

By Jake Richards

When Occupy Wall Street briefly disrupted US politics in 2011, the world watched on with anticipation. Pictures of protestors, chanting and singing, in the shadows of Wall Street’s looming sky-scrapers were published around the world and quickly became symbolic of a deep anxiety with modern capitalism. The movement hit a political and cultural nerve, quickly spreading from New York across the country. With a still black-haired, energetic President Obama in the White House, it seemed a time of seminal importance for progressive politics.

That moment seems to have passed. Social historians, rather than active politicians, now cite the Occupy movement. Any faith in Obama to deliver radical change has disappeared. Many blame the man himself, arguing that his consensual approach to a hostile media and congress dealt the fatal blow to a rare progressive spasm. Others demonise Republican tactics on Capitol Hill and the rise of the financially powerful Tea Party, which stubbornly stifles most of Obama’s initiatives. The President’s consistent call on Congress to raise the federal minimum wage from $7.25 to $10.10 an hour has fallen on deaf ears. The Leader of the Free World has been forced to settle for an executive order raising the lowest levels of pay for individuals working on federal service contracts and sharing a petition on Facebook advocating a broader-based increase.

Obama has overseen worsening inequality. While his supporters cite an impressive record on employment, the US economy is growing on the back of low-paid, low-skilled work. Higher-wage industries shed 3.6 million positions during the recession and only added 2.6 million during the recovery. Over the same period, lower paid jobs have increased by 1.8 million. This is in the context of the rich continuing to have a very good time indeed. Research published recently showed that the wealthiest fifth of households earn over half of the nation’s income. The poorest fifth earn just 3 per cent. On the surface, America remains a wasteland for the progressive cause.

Yet, away from the world’s glare, the US left are organising. Frustrated by the impasse in Washington, campaigners have begun to take matters into their own hands, and, fuelled by further intellectual support in the form of Thomas Piketty’s book – a bestseller in the country – a wealth of anti-poverty campaigns and activity is spreading across the country. Although less glamorous than the rock ‘n’ roll Occupy Movement (which was named the “person of the year” in 2011 by Time magazine and quickly adopted as a brand by the rapper Jay-Z), they are slowly but surely bringing issues of low pay and inequality back to the fore.

Earlier this year, a long-standing “Fight for 15” campaign in Seattle was victorious after the council unanimously voted to impose the highest minimum wage in the US at $15 an hour. Fight for 15 are hopeful that San Francisco will commit to the increase when the proposal is voted on in November. In Los Angeles, the Council is pushing to raise the minimum hourly wage for employees in large hotels. Mayor Emmanuel Rahm, Obama’s former chief of staff, is under pressure from the living wage movement in Chicago and is aiming to raise the minimum there to $13 per hour. In New York, Oakland, Washington DC, San Diego and San Jose, there are active and prominent campaigns pushing at city and state level to raise wages for the very poorest.

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The living wage campaigns have sought inspiration from a national Fight for 15 in one particular low-paid sector of particular cultural significance – fast food. The SEIU (Service Employee International Union) has led a campaign to force McDonalds, Burger King and Wendy’s to raise their wages. It has hit a nerve in Washington – one campaigning fast food worker briefly swapped flipping burgers for Capitol Hill when they were invited and mentioned in Obama’s latest State of the Union.

The campaign began in the summer of 2012, with SEIU and other community organisers reaching out to fast food workers, meeting them after work, educating them of their rights, listening to their stories about the struggles they faced each day to make ends meet. The work began in the churches, community groups, bars and coffee shops of Brooklyn and Manhatten and soon mobilised a new group of politically engaged campaigners ready to voice their concerns and stand up for their interests. A few months later, 500 fast food employees in New York went on strike. This year, there have been strikes in 150 cities worldwide.

This burst of activity couples the zeitgeist of the current social and economic malaise with a deep American tradition of community organising and campaigning. Many of the campaigners leading the Fight for 15, by city and sector, are long-toothed progressive activists, who learnt their trade in the 1970s, as leaders of ACORN, a community organising group, which grew to have more than half a million members (including a young organiser named Barack Obama), organising across 75 cities in the USA. Leading the fight on issues such as voter registration, health care, social housing and immigrant rights, it was a movement that sought not merely to campaign, but to help fill the void of America’s porous state support for the weak, impoverished and voiceless.

Although the campaigning activity is empowering for thousands of workers, widespread tangible success has only really arrived in those areas you might expect. Delivering minimum wage increases in San Francisco, Seattle and New York is one thing. It will be a lot harder in Texas, Utah and Wyoming. For fundamental progress, Washington needs to change and living wage campaigners are now turning their attention to the primaries and the presidential election in 2016.

By undertaking a campaign from the localities, building a new attractive base of activists and advocates to be won over, their aim is to ensure next Democrat nominee for President embraces a higher minimum wage as a key part of their agenda. Hillary Clinton regularly offers warm words on the minimum wage, but some activists are suspicious. As to be expected of the former First Lady and Secretary of State, she is still deemed an establishment figure, with close links to the business lobby and Wall Street itself (which she hopes will foot the billion dollar bill of a presidential campaign). They find hope in Elizabeth Warren, the charismatic Senator from Massachusetts, who emboldens activists with her regular interventions on reforming capitalism and increasing the minimum wage – regularly citing a study revealing that the federal minimum wage should have stood at nearly $22 an hour today if it had kept up with increased rates in worker productivity. Yet, even Warren’s greatest fans admit that their hopes are not reliant on her candidacy, but the extent to which she can influence Hillary’s incipient coronation.

Some have gone as far as to suggest low pay can transcend tribal partisanship. While the current Republican Party oppose any increase implemented by Obama, one of the last meaningful increases in the minimum wage came under President Bush Junior. In his book, Piketty wrongly attributes the rise to President Clinton, exemplifying the current assumption that minimum wage increase is an exclusively Democrat pursuit. For a Republican Party looking for policies to attract more immigrant voters – Romney attracted just 17 per cent at the last election – a minimum wage rise may be a solution, as immigrants are disproportionately low paid.

The campaigners face one daunting structural obstacle to effect change at a national level. Money warps US politics. The business lobby remains powerful in both parties and, unlike the CBI in the UK, refuses to countenance advocating wage increases. Many Democrats still rile John Kerry’s decision to pour cold water on a minimum wage rise in the 2004 for fear of angering the Chambers of Commerce. But for that decision, the large working class immigrant population in Florida may have been more inspired in his candidacy and that could have made all the difference.

But even among the business community, the debate is shifting. Earlier this year, GAP became an outrider amongst American businesses with its decision to raise their minimum wage to $10 per hour, a pay increase for 65,000 of their 90,000 employees. Living wage campaigners cite this as further evidence that their movement is gaining credence, and a powerful repute to the Republican argument that any increase will bring about job losses. GAP’s chief executive, on announcing the rise, said, ‘our decision to invest in front-line employees is that that we expect to deliver a return many times over’.

On the surface, it remains a depressing time for those on the left in America. The giddy excitement of Occupy has dissipated and Obama’s presidency limps to its conclusion with many feeling disillusioned by the lack of progress. Rather than waiting for a presidential knight or knightess in shining armour, progressives are getting back to basics and organising from the bottom-up. A movement is beginning to emerge which has the potential to force the next President’s hand.

Jake Richards is a Churchill Fellow and a scholar at Lincoln’s Inn. He also works in Parliament.

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