To Make Political Progress, Look to the #FightFor15 Playbook
| January 25, 2017
Right now, somewhere in our country, there is a mother, choosing to go to sleep hungry so that she can pay for her child’s field trip in the morning. Right now, in your state, there’s a woman working against the advice of her doctor because she doesn’t have access to paid sick leave. Right now, in your city, there is a teenage girl surviving daily sexual harassment because her fast-food job is about more than “just a little spending money,” and she can’t afford to quit. Right now, in your neighborhood, there is a woman who, despite working two jobs and a side hustle, is on the brink of eviction.
I got involved with the #FightFor15, a movement of low-wage workers fighting for a fair economy and the right to form a union, because of stories like these. In less than four years, the leaders of this movement—most whom are low-wage women of color—have shifted the trajectory of our economy. Though the movement was catalyzed around a bold demand for higher wages by fast-food workers, the women on the front lines quickly expanded their focus to address a wide range of ways that women are denied dignity at work and in their lives.
This past week I attended the historic Women’s March on Washington. I marched alongside and engaged with women from all over our country. We shared the challenges we face and called out the systemic racism many of us endure on a daily basis. It wasn’t lost on me that many of the women I met felt subjected to the “woman tax” by trying to support their families in an economy that doesn’t work for working women.
Like many of the low-wage workers who marched on Saturday, I also joined the movement for dignity at work because of my own struggles to put food on the table and keep a roof over my head. I know firsthand what’s it is like to rely on public assistance to make ends meet. My husband lost his job in 2008 when the economy collapsed in the Great Recession just as I entered my first year of law school.
When my classmates saw me running around looking frazzled in the hallways, they probably assumed I had had a particularly brutal encounter with the Socratic method. Little did they know that I’d just spent my lunch hour on the phone with the energy company begging them not to shut off my lights. I remember many twelve-hour days during which I only ate once if I wanted to be able to get enough gas to get home.
On several occasions, my children were suspended from day care because I couldn’t afford to pay the obscene cost of more than $1,500 per month. When this happened, my only option was to bring my kids to class with me. I’ll always be eternally grateful for kindhearted classmates who ignored my daughter running up and down the stairs during class, held my infant son so I could participate in a discussion, and entertained my kids in the law school atrium while I tried out for mock trial.
Thankfully, I was eligible for food and child care assistance, which allowed me to scrape by, stay in school, and graduate. Though I am thankful for those public assistance programs, I gladly traded in my food stamp card the second I started earning a living wage. Far too many of my sisters in the struggle for economic justice don’t have the privilege of knowing that the poverty they’re experiencing has an expiration date. These women have spent years helping to make their employers great by providing the elbow grease for low-wage industries that make trillions in profits. I’ll never forget a woman I met during the #FightFor15 campaign who had received only a $1.75 raise in the decade she worked for the same fast-food restaurant.
Recognizing my own privilege even in those moments of financial crisis has deepened my commitment to building a fair economy so that everyone who works hard can enjoy the freedom that a good job provides. I wish I could attribute “making it” through those incredibly difficult moments to my own character, but I can’t. The truth is, I survived and my kids thrived only because of the government safety net, the willingness of my family to step up and help raise my children, and having the ability to enter a well-compensated, male-dominated profession. While women should be able to do any job we desire, we shouldn’t have to become a doctor or lawyer just to support our families.
Americans must definitively decide that all women have the right to full participation in our economy and communities. We must fight to fundamentally transform our economy, which undervalues the kinds of work primarily done by women, jobs that pay minimum wage, as well as professional jobs in education, the nonprofit sector, and customer service. This has been the mission and the work of #FightFor15 since its inception.
The current administration doesn’t believe in raising the minimum wage and nominated Andy Puzder for labor secretary. If he is confirmed, it will mean that a man whose company has a long history of claims of labor law violations will now oversee enforcing those laws. The administration thinks that this nomination will slow the progress and resolve of the #FightFor15 movement. But if what I witnessed on Saturday is any indication, the president couldn’t be more wrong.
The truth is, leaders in the movement have always understood that a fair economy must be built from the bottom up, not dictated from the top down. They remember how little support they had from establishment politicians on both sides of the aisle in the early days. Just four years ago, bringing up the idea of a $15 per hour minimum wage would have gotten you laughed out of most rooms. “Impossible” was the favorite word of the naysayers. Today, thanks to the dedication and sacrifices of a lot of low-wage workers, $15 an hour campaigns have taken root in hundreds of communities across the country, wages are on the rise in blue and red states alike, and what once was considered impossible has been proven possible.
Truthfully, racking up minimum wage victories across the country was one of the few bright spots for me in the recent election. According to the Economic Policy Institute, “At the start of the new year, 19 states increased their minimum wages, lifting the pay of over 4.3 million workers,” thanks to the broad coalition of workers and organizations that fit under the #FightFor15 banner. In fact, since #FightFor15 launched in 2012, the movement has won more than $61.5 billion in wage gains for American workers.
To put these wage gains in context, according to the National Employment Law Project, “this $61.5 billion raise delivered by the #FightFor15 to workers in just a handful of states is more than 10 times larger than the total raise received by workers in all 50 states under Congress’s last federal minimum wage increase, approved in 2007.”
Those who are hoping to turn the energy of the Women’s March into sustained resistance and collective power for women and our families should study the #FightFor15 playbook. Kind-hearted, benevolent politicians didn’t give workers this victory. In fact, in the early days often even legislators who wore the Democratic party label stood hostilely in the way, rather than opening the door for these workers. Even Hillary Clinton didn’t support a $15 per hour minimum wage at the beginning of her campaign for President.
It took fierce, bold action sustained over time to shift the tide. First low-wage worker leaders stepped out of the shadows of poverty, ignored the voice in their heads telling them that they should be grateful for table scraps, and instead listened to the voice in their hearts that recognized that a strong democracy can’t flourish in a rigged economy. With time those voices on strike lines, social media, and the evening news became a powerful echo chamber capable of changing the hearts and minds of some of those in power.
Today the landscape is very different. Elected officials in states like New York and California have signed $15/hour bills into law. City leaders are stepping in where there isn’t enough power at the state level by increasing minimum wage at the municipal level. Even in places like my home state of Wisconsin, where municipal minimum wage increases are preempted at the state level, there are elected leaders introducing and passing legislation to raise wages for contract workers and public employees through living wage laws.
This November, referendums allowed voters in four states—Arizona, Colorado, Maine, and Washington—to raise their own wages to $12 or more. In Washington State, the amendment voters passed will lift wages to $13.50 by 2020. In both Washington and Arizona, the vote will also give workers several paid days off, ensuring nobody is forced to choose between going to work sick or losing a paycheck. And in San Jose, working mothers took fair scheduling into their own hands by organizing to pass a city measure that will give 64,000 part-time workers the opportunity to work more hours and boost their paychecks.
The most important lesson I have learned from the #FightFor15 movement is that real power begins the moment we stop letting others define what is possible for our lives. When elected officials refused to advance our agenda, movement leaders rolled up our sleeves, collected millions of signatures, and placed the decision to raise wages and improve working conditions directly in the hands of everyday people through ballot initiative campaigns. In an era in which the new administration seeks to bring our country back to the days of Jim Crow, these ballot initiatives will continue to be a critical tool for resisting a racist, anti-worker, anti-immigrant, anti-woman agenda.
If every woman and ally who marched on Saturday went back to their community next week and took the same six hours they spent marching knocking on doors, we’d really have a resistance. Not sure where to start? Try calling on your local politicians to follow the leadership of the city councils in both Seattle, Washington and Emeryville, California, which both unanimously passed fair scheduling laws this fall.
And even if you can’t get any political traction in your state, you can implement another #FighFor15 strategy and participate in corporate accountability campaigns advocating for change directly with employers regardless of where you live. For example, last year female retail workers led a successful campaign that got six major retailers—Disney, Aeropostale, PacSun, Carter’s, David’s Tea, and Zumiez—to stop the practice known as “on-call scheduling,” allowing employees to be called into work at a moment’s notice
Our Constitution begins with “We the People,” not “We the Politicians and Corporations.” Yet for too long, we’ve let politicians and the moneyed elite dictate the terms of our freedom. Now more than ever, women must lead unapologetically from our deepest values. We must build our collective power in the streets and on the doors connecting with not just the nearly three million more voters who voted for Clinton, but also all the third-party voters, conscientious objectors, Bernie bros, and the almost half of eligible voters who didn't show up to the polls at all.
We must be guided not by our fear of the current administration, but by our love of county and our commitment to ensuring that the full promise of America is available to all who live within her borders. Above all, we must remember that together—like the brave leaders of the #FightFor15 movement—we can make the impossible possible.
The views expressed in this commentary are those of the author alone and do not represent WMC. WMC is a 501(c)(3) organization and does not endorse candidates.
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