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The Politics of Giving a Raise

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Everybody, it seems, wants to raise the minimum wage. From President Obama giving federal employees a raise to $10.10 an hour, to the Fight for $15, to a number of actual and attempted raises in various cities (the exact numbers falling in between the above two amounts) there seems to have been an outbreak of altruism throughout the country. What is behind all of this?

Being an election year, in a season without a presidential campaign. Democrats need something to bring people to the poles. Six years into a presidency that advocated hope and change but delivered an endless NSA surveillance scandal, drone bombings and an unpopular health care law, the Democrats need to deliver something to bolster their credentials as advocates for the poor. Statewide and local initiatives that promise a raise for those at the bottom of the wage scale give working-class people and exhausted liberals a reason to go to the polls, raising the hopes of Democratic Party strategists that these voters will support their candidates across the ballot.

The New York Times documented this strategy last December, noting that unions will play a critical role. “A representative from the A.F.L.-C.I.O.,” says the Times, “urged the White House officials to coordinate with Senate Democrats on when to bring the issue to the floor so that the unions could ‘have time to mount a grass-roots’ campaign stirring up support for the measure, an attendee recalled.”

Some of the gears in this effort have already begun rolling, from Obama’s raise for federal employees, to California Governor Jerry Brown’s statewide increase, which raises the minimum from $8 to $9 on July 1, 2014, just in time–but not too early–to remind people who to vote for in November. But the effort doesn’t stop there, not even in California.

So far, it has been more of an “effort” than a “struggle,” which is typically the case with minimum wage increases. Unless we are to believe that a spontaneous working-class revolt corresponds with every increase, we have to conclude that these efforts are more often the result of political patronage than actual labor battles. The campaigns to raise the minimum in Oakland–but not too much–highlight the nature of this effort. Nobody is going to complain about getting a raise, regardless of where it comes from, but understanding how and why these raises occur also help underline why they remain so low.

Raising the wage in order to keep it low

Oakland’s minimum wage effort is led by Lift Up Oakland, which is backed by a coalition of unions and pro-labor groups aiming to increase the minimum from California’s $8 to a city-mandated $12.25 plus one hour of sick time for every thirty hours worked. This is no small change, but is still substantially less than the $15/hour that has been promoted throughout the country. Initially, however, the groups behind Lift Up Oakland were aiming for even less–reportedly around $11. What pushed them upward?

The Fight for 15 campaign may have been a factor, but there was an even more specific–and embarrassing–reality they had to contend with.

One of the forces keeping the increase down is, ironically, SEIU Local 1021, which represents city workers around the Bay Area. The irony is that it is SEIU–the International, not Local 1021–which is behind the Fight for 15 campaign. And yet 1021, whose workers typically make quite a bit more than $15 per hour, were worried–presumably–that a higher increase would be politically unpopular, while Unite/HERE Local 2850, whose hotel workers would more likely benefit from the increase, wanted it higher.

The problem of not raising the wage too high has been compounded recently by Oakland City Councilmember Larry Reid, who is proposing an increase of the Oakland minimum to $10.20. What is behind Reid’s generosity? “I think [$12.25 is] too much, too soon,” he told the Oakland Tribune. “My hope is that my colleagues will listen to all the folks that will be impacted and come up with something that is fair.” Reid wants to raise the minimum wage in order to keep it low. He hopes that his proposal will forestall the efforts to increase the wage much higher than $10.20–a generous $.10 more than Obama’s proposal.

What the disagreement between Lift Up Oakland and Reid have assured is that the debate will now be between the $10.20 proposal and the $12.25 initiative. The $15 demand is now almost entirely off the table, in Oakland anyway, as $12.25 is now the “realistic” option. Of course, to the extent the debate plays out this way, it will only solidify the idea that $15 was never “realistic”–or serious–in the first place. Anybody who sees the effort as merely a stepping-stone to $15 per hour need only look at the Lift Up Oakland initiative, which includes regular increases tied to inflation. This will protect the wage from declining, as it has for decades as the cost of living has increased. It also all but assures that these same unions will not launch a new battle, post-election, to raise the wage even higher than $12.25.

The danger now is that the unions pushing the ballot initiative just might find some sort of compromise with Reid, right in the middle at $11.25 or so, which is just about what their original proposal was in the first place. The saving grace, if there is one, is that California State Senator Mark Leno is pushing SB 935, which would increase the wage to $11 in 2015 and up to $13 in 2017. Everybody wants a piece of the minimum wage action. But to what end?

The unions behind Lift Up Oakland see their role as organizing workers to defend their wages and working conditions, but they also see their alliance with Democratic Party politicians as a fundamental part of this effort–and not the obstacle that it actually is. For example, Oakland City Councilmember Dan Kalb spoke at the Lift Up Oakland rally, saying that he not only supported the $12.25 increase but thought it should go higher, including up to $15. Of course, nobody is actually pushing for $15 so he can say whatever he wants with no consequences whatsoever. Nobody is holding his feet to the fire and nobody is going to demand he do anything. He can take credit for having stood by Lift Up Oakland while taking no heat from anybody. Unfortunately, if we can learn anything from history–and I certainly hope we can–we should expect that there will be more Democrats speaking at these events in the following months and not fewer.

On the other hand, demanding a higher wage would put the unions in direct conflict with business interests throughout the city and the politicians who represent them. The restaurants and cafes which make up Oakland’s highly touted “renaissance” would cry foul and expect their servants in City Hall to stand up for them. But it is precisely this sort of all out political battle–not to mention class warfare–that is necessary to take on the political machine that runs this city and the businesses they protect. Dan Kalb would have nothing to do with such a campaign and therein lies the problem. It is much easier for everybody to hold hands and take credit for having done something–and $12.25 is certainly something–than push for the messy and politically unpopular fight that low-wage workers need.

So What happened to the Fight for $15?

Last year, a series of increasingly large and visible actions were held throughout the country under the banner of “Fight for 15,” insisting on $15 per hour–not necessarily a government mandated wage–and a union.

Whatever happened elsewhere–and there do appear to be small but real worker-led actions in a few places–the Oakland campaign has been far from the bottom-up upsurge of low-wage workers fighting for their future. On the contrary, the tenor of the campaign has been a top-down media campaign whose purpose is to put SEIU in the front of a discussion about these workers’ futures.

In the early summer of 2013, an organizer from Rise Up Milwaukee–that city’s version of Fight for 15–was flown in by SEIU to lay the basis for this campaign. He told activists–including myself–that his plan was to hold a strike within about two months and they were focusing on fast food and not retail. Low and behold, his team of paid organizers–or “subordinates” as he called them–found a group of fast food workers who agreed to vote in favor of striking, and by some miracle their strike was held on August 29, the same date as dozens of other actions around the country.

This is not to disparage the workers who have participated in this campaign, some of whom did not go to work on that date and have taken risks by participating. The point, however, is to appreciate the top-down control-freakery endemic of SEIU organizing, which creates the veneer of struggle while limiting the power and political consequences of their actions.

A handful of workers very well may have walked off the job, but reports indicate that probably not many more did so. The bulk of the several hundred participants through the days action were supportive activists and community members–among them Oakland Mayor Jean Quan and City Councilmember Pat Kernighan, both of whom spoke at a rally in front of KFC. This had all the trappings of a media campaign with none of the threat of a battle.

However, in the months since, the issue of $15 seems to have disappeared entirely from their organizing and the rhetoric has now shifted toward campaigning around wage theft–certainly a worthwhile cause, but decidedly away from a demand that now seems a bit embarrassing considering the Lift Up Oakland initiative. Among their actions have been rallies and press conferences at fast food joints, marching inside a McDonald’s with Congressmember Barbara Lee and participating in a panel discussion with Nancy Pelosi.

Seattle and Fifteen Now

Seattle is the one city where the dynamics appear a bit different.

Kshama Sawant, an open socialist elected to the Seattle City Council last year, campaigned on a $15 per hour minimum wage and continues to insist on it. As a result, the entire political establishment in Seattle are falling all over themselves to insist that they, too, support $15.

Mayor Ed Murray, a born-again $15 supporter, has established a committee to consider raising the minimum wage which includes business people who also claim they support it.

“An unfettered free market will give you the same things as an untended garden, weeds and collapse,” Nick Hanauer, an entrepreneur and member of Murray’s committee told the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, insisting that businesses need to be “compelled, not persuaded or implored” to pay $15. The punch line, however, is that Hanauer wants to phase in the increase and include “total income” such as tips, for example.

Hanauer, like Murray, is supporting a $15 minimum wage precisely in order to weaken the demand. That is their entire role in the debate. They are playing Larry Reid’s game–advocating a raise in order to keep it low–but because a visible figure in the debate is insisting on $15, the entire debate has been pulled upward, well beyond what anybody in the establishment really wanted.

Until recently, Sawant has been steadfast in her support of “15 Now,” as her organization is called. However, she recently conceded to a multi-year phase-in of the raise for small businesses–even though the other side has made zero concessions–in order to counter the arguments of the Mayor and his supporters. Presumably, this would win over the middle-ground, the problem is that the middle-ground is filled with people who will be swayed by every argument thrown at them. How small is a small business? How long is the phase in? Can we include tips and benefits? These arguments will continue to dog the campaign regardless of how many compromises Sawant makes and how “reasonable” she appears.

Low-wage workers in Oakland, and elsewhere, are very likely going to get a long overdue raise. One question is how much. Another question is, simply, how? Overall, the wage will be increased as part of a maneuver to further the career of Democratic Party politicians, who can in fact deliver something, just not all that much all that often. It will not be the result an upsurge from below, and to the extent that there are elements of that actually happening, the focus of the campaign has been shaped in a way to make it less likely and not more likely that it will take up this direction–unless workers insist on it in spite of the efforts of their advocates.

The one thing we can learn, if nothing else, is that the next time a Democrat advocates some progressive demand, we do not need to applaud them, or thank them, or celebrate a new mood of class struggle that has not happened, but remember how these maneuvers are made to weaken such struggles and not further them.

Scott Jay is a writer and activist living in Oakland, CA.

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