The Campaign to Raise the Minimum Wage held an organizing and strategy meeting this weekend. It started on Friday with talks by Sterling Harders about the SeaTac citizen’s initative campaign and Janah Bailey from Chicago talking about the organizing and striking of fast food workers there. They spoke again at Friday evening’s public forum, where we were treated also to a performance by spoken word artist Ritalin. Here’s two videos of Ritalin performing elsewhere two of the poems he performed Friday night:
And the second one:
Saturday included some inspiring discussions on the strengths and weaknesses of our organizing, and then a panel discussion of different tactics we can use to try to build a strong sustainable movement. I was about to write “a strong sustainable movement to raise the minimum wage” but the conversations really went beyond that. It wasn’t just about the minimum wage. It was about empowering people, organizing people and helping people claim their ability to speak out.
There was lots of talk about telling our stories. Janah spoke about how her coworkers responded when they started to learn her story, why she’s working and why the minimum wage isn’t enough. Putting a human face on the stories helps, though at times this can backfire, as was described by one lady from the worker’s action center who had allowed herself to be featured in the media as someone working two minimum wages jobs and going to school. After the story came out she was inundated by people offering pity and wanting to help her individually, instead of recognizing that the issue at hand is a systematic one. To all those who want to help she says, contact your politicians. Put pressure on them to raise the minimum wage, and then we can help all low income workers, instead of just the few who make it into the media.
Another woman spoke about how you cannot change the world by speaking to yourself, you need to reach out to those who might not yet agree with you. If the answer is “no” look at what it takes to make it “yes.” Sterling Harders spoke about the alliances they made in SeaTac, how they had small business owners speaking out in favor of their proposal and how they brought in people who weren’t really sure what the minimum wage was but supported the other aspects of the citizen’s ballet: tip fairness and sick days.
There was talk about changing the way the public understands things. Janah spoke about recognizing that the workers are the ones who bring the money into the fast food places. They are the wealth creators. They make the work happen and they deserve to enjoy the rewards of their work rather than watch the wealth be concentrated in the hands of the CEOs. Sterling Harders spoke about “middle out economics” instead of trickle-down economics. Raising the minimum wage helps put money into the hands of people who will spend it, thus helping circulate the money throughout the communities. By changing how people understand themselves, their role in society, and the economics, we can inspire action.
We need to change people’s expectations. When people first hear the idea of a $14 or $15 minimum wage they think its crazy, but once its been in the news for a while, once they hear there’s movement and possibility, then people get hopeful. Sterling Harders spoke about how in SeaTac the mayoral candidates were first against the citizens initiative but eventually had to be for it if they wanted to be elected. We need to build that sort of political pressure, that belief on the part of people that they can demand good policies from their politicians.
There was talk about vulnerability. At one point I was talking at a table with three women, two of whom work with immigrants (legal and illegal). They talked about the stress that people are under, the fear people have of speaking up. Will political activity be held against a person when they apply for permanent citizenship? Will they lose their job or have their hours cut? Janah, from Chicago, spoke of having her hours cut because of her activism and others report hearing similar stories and similar fears. One lady said her response when workers express fear of being fired for union action is to point out that there’s nothing to protect them from being fired now. Unionized, they’ll have some protection. Still any person getting involved should know the risks clearly. For many, the potential benefits overweigh the risks but at the same time the whole vulnerability emphasises that no cause can be fought in isolation. Rights of migrant workers, of temporary foreign workers, of precarious workers all need to be defended so that they have the ability to speak out about the different issues that matter to them.
I was inspired. I was encouraged. I am so proud to be part of the campaign, to be working with people across the province to help bring about a higher wage and a more politically involved public.