Connecting $15 an Hour Movement to other Social Movements

Working Washington and the fight for $15 an hour is a very important movement and I want to thank the organizers and all of you for attending this gathering. You are involved in this necessary struggle for economic justice. I recently returned from a month in Greece where because of inhuman policies forcing Greece to cut government spending, cut pensions, lower the minimum wage and raise taxes on basic goods and services, unemployment, poverty, low wages and job security are even worse than in the U.S. Many Greek people asked me about important issues and social movements for justice in the United States and I usually mentioned the ones for climate justice, $15 an hour and a living wage, and the Black Lives Matter movement that has focused on exposing and stopping police shooting of Black people.

$15 an Hour: Its Time has Come!

First a little about significance of the fight for $15 and the statewide Working Washington organization. Since the 1970’s, the gaps between the rich and poor have grown significantly in the United States. The top 1% today takes more than 20% of national income; the average household in the poorest 20% of the population earns about 1/100th of the top 1%. The 2011 Occupy Wall Street movement made public the obscene inequality in the United States between the 1% and the 99%. In Olympia, four years ago, Olympia residents occupied the land where we are standing for more than two months as part of the national Occupy Movement.

There is a direct connection between the Occupy movement which ended in terms of occupation of public space in late 2011, and the growing walkouts and organizing for the last three years for a minimum of $15 an hour for fast food workers, for retail workers at stores like Target, JC Penny’s and Walmart, and for all workers. It is a just and righteous social movement. Why should people because they already have wealth and can make income from investing money make 100 times more than someone else who has the same needs for food, health care, housing, day care, transportation, enjoying life. This social movement for $15 an hour has spread and grown—walkouts, initiatives beginning in Seatac and because of growing movement passed in Seattle, Los Angeles, Santa Fe, New Mexico; and San Francisco. $15 an hour is on the ballot in Tacoma. It is now alive and growing in Olympia, a lot because of the hard work of people present today. Whether it is winning $15 an hour or other just demands like paid sick leave will only come from us organizing, demanding not just politely asking nicely, protesting and building the power both at our work places and in our communities.

$15 an hour is not a solution to economic exploitation, it is not a living wage if one has to help support others, if one’s rent is $900 a month or more, if one works less than 40 hours a week but it is an important start. Its time has come.

Going from $10 to $15 an hour improves our lives. It makes our life a little less stressful and is a step, an important one but only a step towards a livable wage and a more equal society.

Business associations such as the restaurant association and the Chamber of Commerce claim that they really care about workers but that $15 an hour will hurt workers because it will raise prices, that it will cause businesses to lay off workers because they can’t afford $15, and that many businesses will be forced to close.

Do you really think these business associations and their spokespeople are really concerned about workers or that their concern is mainly about business and corporate profits. If they claimed there only concern is profits, they would have even less support than do now. In a poll conducted last spring and reported in the Olympian, 2/3 of Olympians support a minimum wage of $15 an hour.

$15 an Hour is Good Economics!

I study and teach economics and from the many studies I have looked at, raising the minimum wage to $15 does not lead to increases in prices for most businesses and if they do, the rise is small. The reason is that the total costs to most businesses of their low wage workers are only a small part of their total costs. For example, for McDonald’s most of their costs are rent, utilities and insurance, purchasing the foods they cook, etc. so a 50% increase in wages for low income workers means about a 5% increase in costs. For Target, it is even less of an additional cost. Also, workers with higher wages would spend more money locally boosting sales and therefore demand for workers. There is little evidence that employment would decline if wages grew. Raising the wage to $15 would also help workers earning a little more than $15 as firms tend to maintain a wage ladder and wage structure. Maybe for small local businesses who hire a lot of low wage workers, they could get a small tax break financed by taxing wealth to pay for the wages increase. Let us remember how raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour will truly help us, our friends and our community.

Some Olympia City Council members say they would only support $15 if it is county wide but I say winning it in Olympia will help it spread to other nearby towns just like Seatac’s and Seattle’s victory. It will further the momentum that is gathering steam locally and nationally.

What is most exciting about Working Washington, especially in Olympia, is that it is lead by low wage workers. It is not a campaign mainly run by staff where workers are basically primarily involved in controlled actions and, for photo opportunities but are not really involved in the campaign, the organizing and the strategy. So the struggle here is achieving more than $15 an hour which will happen. It is also about building self-confidence, growing skills in organizing, and in talking to others, gaining knowledge and self-respect and worker power.

To change this country we need organizations of workers, labor unions, but labor unions of a new type—not unions who are mainly run by staff and work within the Democratic Party but rather what I call social movement unionism, unions whose strength is an involved membership who are a social movement like you are building here who organize low income and part-time workers and who demand more than just better wages and who work for and in coalitions with other movements for transforming this country to one where there are reproductive rights, the end of poverty, meaningful work, the end of U.S. wars, climate, and immigrant, environmental and racial justice—these are all labor issues.

Over 40% of workers in the U.S. make less than $15 an hour so we are talking about over 60 million people who can and would benefit from $15 an hour. Most low wage workers are over 25 years old. 56% of those earning under $15 are women so it is a women’s issue.

According to the Wall Street Journal, hardly a pro worker newspaper, 55% of Black workers earn less than $15 an hour, and 60% of Latino workers earn less than $15 an hour. So winning $15 an hour will disproportionately benefit women, Blacks and Latinos. It is an issue of gender and racial justice as well as economic justice

I want to turn to the issue of connecting movements and issues which is a part of the purpose of this significant gathering.

Racial and Economic Justice Are and Should Be Connected!

I mentioned in the beginning of this talk, the Black Lives Matter Movement. The number of unjustified police shootings and killings of African-Americans and also Latinos, Native Americans and low income whites is unacceptable and horrendous—to name a few recent shootings–Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, Tamir Rice in Cleveland, Eric Garner and Akil Gurley in New York, Antonio Zambrano-Montes in Pasco, Washington, Walter Scott in Charleston, Freddie Gray in Baltimore, Daniel Covarrubias in Lakewood, WA and on May 21st, 2015 in Olympia, Andre Thompson and Bryson Chaplin in Olympia. They were shot but lived although Bryson Chaplin is paralyzed from a bullet in his spine fired by Olympia Police officer, Ryan Donald.

So in Olympia, we at this gathering should support in words and action, Bryson Chaplin and Andre Thompson who were unarmed and shot basically for shoplifting and refusing to follow the orders of an out of control police officer. In a reversal of justice, Andre Thompson and Bryson Chaplin were charged with assault and the shooter, Police Officer Donald was found blameless in an investigation of law enforcement by law enforcement and totally supported by the Thurston County District Attorney, Jon Tunheim. Let us demand the charges be dropped against Bryson Chaplin and Andre Thompson, that there be an independent investigation of what happened, that all medical bills be paid for by the city of Olympia for these two young men shot, and that a truly independent police review board be set up for the future. Don’t believe the media and police version of what happened; it is the same media that says $15 an hour is too much.

Let us take a moment of silence to reflect on these shootings and what they mean for their family, friends and for all of us. … These shootings by the police, disproportionately of Black Men but not only black men is not new and has been going on for the history of this country. What is new and hopeful is there is a growing movement, led by Black Lives Matter to challenge this police violence. Racism has been a central part of the United States since Native people were displaced from their land including right here where we are standing and in Thurston County, and equally important the building of this country based on slavery of African people. Because of the civil rights, Black, Native and other movements there have been real gains but black unemployment is still twice that of whites and the poverty rate for Black and Latino households is two and a half times the already high rate of poverty among whites. We have the highest prison population in the world and blacks are six times more likely to be imprisoned than whites, Latinos two and ½ times more likely than whites.

The movement for racial justice is certainly to end police brutality and mass incarceration of Blacks, Latinos and Native Americans but it is also about working for full employment, for meaningful living wage jobs access to quality education, affordable and quality housing and medical care, for quality and affordable child care, for reproductive rights and for clean air, drinkable water, against a toxic environment and against climate change. In Olympia, the newly formed Stand Up for Racial Justice (SURJ), who has a table here at this gathering, is committed to challenging all forms and structures of racism.

$15 an hour and Working Washington should unite and work closely with movements and organizations such as Black Lives Matter and women’s and LGBT and immigrant rights and anti-war groups to build a principled and forward looking coalition for a just society. Connecting issues and social movements and organizations to each other has the potential to build a powerful movement of movements that is stronger than any of its individual parts. This means educating ourselves and in our groups about these issues and their causes and their interconnection. For example if immigrants have full rights for jobs, employers cannot hire immigrants at $6 or $7 an hour nor threaten non-immigrants to accept lower wages or risk losing their job. Similarly $15 an hour would really help immigrants, the large majority of whom currently earn less than $15 an hour to reduce their poverty.

Given our positions in society, our identities and our passions one issue and movement may concern us more than others but what I am calling for is building social movements and power from below where we work together to fight the powerful where “An injury to one is truly an injury to all”, which has been the inspiring slogan of the IWW, the Industrial Workers of the World, often called the Wobblies. This gathering at Heritage Park is a step towards connecting the various progressive groups and movements in Olympia. Let us do more of this.

One group in Olympia that is trying to connect social movements and issues such as $15 an hour, ending police brutality and for affordable housing is Olympia for All, one of whose members, Marco Rosaire Rossi is running for mayor of Olympia. Perhaps most exciting is that they hope to continue building Olympia for All after the election; check them out at their table. I strongly support Marco Rosaire Rossi for mayor and the Olympia for All organization.

Reform and Societal Transformation!

In closing, low wage and alienating jobs where we are told what to do and not fully use our creativity and abilities, an environmental crisis, U.S. wars around the world, growing surveillance, racial injustice, the oppression of women, poverty and economic inequality are caused by an economic system, based on profit and exploitation, capitalism. Capitalism is the root of our problems. It can and should be replaced.

We need to work on and make happen, winning important reforms such as $15 an hour while simultaneously developing a vision and our power and organization to overthrow the current economic system of capitalism and create a system based on meeting human needs. Let us replace a system based on war and profit and racism and sexism to an environmentally and humanly sustainable system, structured to further justice on a local, national and global level, what I call participatory socialism; we can also call it real participatory democracy, not the limited democracy we now have. $15 an hour and Working Washington is part of that struggle for a just and better world.

Si Se Puede!
Thank You!
Power to the People!

This piece first appeared at Znet.

Peter Bohmer is a faculty member in Political Economy at the Evergreen State College in Olympia, WA. He has been an activist since 1967 in movements for fundamental social change.