Raise the Wage Act

Washington    Landing in President Trump’s “swamp” in Washington early in the morning, I turned on my phone for email.  There was an ACTION ALERT!  I knew it was important, because it was all in capital letters, the universal signal for emergency.  Scanning quickly, it was not an emergency for me at all, but a panic email from the National Restaurant Association.  They wanted everyone to bombard their Congressional representatives with messages, and to do it PDQ, pretty darned quick. Why?  The Raise the Wage Act is coming up for a vote in July.

The Raise the Wage Act is the bill that would finally raise the federal minimum wages after a decade of being frozen in place.  The proposal would boost the wage from its current nadir of $7.25 per hour to $15 by the year 2024, a five-year period.  And, oh my goodness, this NRA, not the ones with guns, but the ones with spatulas, was horrified that one of their most oppressive accomplishments of the past, freezing the tip credit, was going to be totally abolished.

Wouldn’t that be wonderful!  Heck, it might even pass this time.  Pass the House of Representatives that is.  No chance in the Senate, but maybe, just maybe there’s the possibility with the election coming up, and Trump perhaps thinking he should deliver something to this left-behind base he likes to claim as a populist, that he might jump on the bandwagon for a bit of a raise.  Probably, not for eliminating the tip credit, which allows servers to be paid a tad over $2 per hour with tips making up the rest, but, you know, maybe something.

Why do I get these emails?  Another good question!  Fair Grinds Coffeehouse, our social enterprise in New Orleans supporting organizing, offering 100% fair trade products, and a community center of sorts in the neighborhood, has to be licensed to operate.  There’s no special coffeehouse license of course, so we have a restaurant license, which is fine by us, but that also means we have to have someone with a SafeServ license and of course the Restaurant Association, like most business unions, has created a monopoly there on the training and certification, so, voila, we get the constant barrages from the NRA, archenemy of living wages forever and ever.

Maybe they shouldn’t worry so much.  The National Employment Labor Project (NELP), one of the good soldiers in this fight in Washington issued a report on wage theft as I hit the ground as well.  We know the Wage and Hour Division of the Department of Labor has been eviscerated with budget and staffing cuts, so there wouldn’t be a world of enforcement on minimum wages anyway, so it would be left to the states.  The vast majority of states do not have adequate laws to protect workers who report wage theft, according to the National Employment Law Project study. Only six states — Arizona, California, Florida, New York, Oregon and the District of Columbia — provide “essential retaliation protections” for wage theft, while six others don’t have laws on the books on the books at all.

Even if we win this battle in whole or in part, there’s a larger war that we all have to fight continuously.  Meanwhile, do I as I do, not as the NRA says, and call or write your Congressperson and ask them to vote for the Raise the Wage Act, and damn the torpedoes.

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Please enjoy Rising Appalachia Featuring Ani DiFranco

and Matt Woods’ Jailbird Song.

Thanks to KABF.

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Learning with the Local Union Leaders

New Orleans      Local 100 United Labor Unions held its 38th consecutive leadership training weekend, this year in New Orleans.  Twenty-five leaders from workplaces in Arkansas, Texas, and Louisiana converged to share strategies and tactics, tips and tools.

The meeting started with leaders sharing their views of the economy and how it might be impacting their workplaces, and, perhaps more importantly, whether or not the door was now open for our membership of lower waged workers to press for long denied raises.  Even with current minimum wages at $7.25 per hour and stuck there except for Arkansas because of its pending minimum wage bump. The living wage minimum in New Orleans at $10.55 was also important though less than the $11 per hour starting wages the union had recently won in bargaining at seven different nursing homes around Louisiana.  Winning a starting rate over $10 per hour in Houston Independent Schools had the same impact earlier.

Quickly, the debate moved to whether there was a way to push all boats up in the rising tide to bring our cleaners, custodians, launderers, and cooks up as well.  A leader from the Arkansas Human Development Center in Warren gave some tips they had used to put pressure on their state facility by selective utilization of sick and leave time to push the message to the bosses.  Leaders from Pine Bluff and New Orleans as well as Gulf Coast CAA, the giant Houston Head Start contractor, shared how they had used “work to rule” to send the message to their bosses by resisting efforts to cut the staff by speeding up work and piling on additional responsibilities.

One thing was quickly clear.  Everyone knew this opportunity wouldn’t last long and had to be seized immediately, so the discussion moved to how to organize job classification work groups to take action now, in and outside of binding contracts.  How could the leaders communicate and push forward across the union?  Why not try WhatsApp?  So, all of a sudden in the meeting three people already on the app were helping the rest of the leaders get on.  A sheet was passed around with phone numbers so everyone could connect to a Local 100 Stewards group, as the room crackled with humor and excitement.

This debate segued into a conversation about the 2020 election and how the union should approach it in our deep red states.  After some back and forth on candidates that might be promising to working people, there was consensus that we should follow six candidates that had appeal in a room of our stewards, who happened to all be black and brown women.  The six the leaders settled on were Joe Biden, Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders, Kamala Harris, Cory Booker, and Beto O’Rourke.  Another list was passed around for volunteers who would monitor each of these candidates over the next six months on our issues and share the intelligence gathered with the rest of the stewards on the WhatsApp group.

All this was just the beginning in what turned out to be a great leadership conference, rich with ideas and energy, giving hope and deepening commitment across the union.

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