Tag Archives: Minnesota Senate

Minimum Wage & Movement Politics: On the Fight For Indexing

22 Mar

This past Thursday the four locals of SEIU in Minnesota held our annual lobby day at the Capitol. The top lobbying priority for SEIU members talked to their elected representatives about is raising the state’s minimum wage and indexing that increase to inflation.  I emceed a rally that capped off our day in Saint Paul and quickly learned it is not easy to come up with a union chant that rhymes with “Index.”  I settled for probably the weirdest and wonkiest chant heard at the Capitol in a while: “What do we want? MINIMUM WAGE! How do we want it? INDEXED!”

On the surface, the fight for indexing the minimum wage —  ensuring that the increase that is passed becomes a base and that future increases match inflation–might seem a bit in the weeds. I have heard suggestions that “most people don’t understand it, so what’s the harm in just passing the $9.50 alone?”

After the rally, I was asked by someone pretty high up in state government if indexing was a line in the sand for the coalition. The person asked, “Can we take a victory and live to fight another day?”  This is actually a really good question.  I am one who often argues that, when it comes to politics, let’s not let the perfect be the enemy of the good.

Raise the Wage - INDEXEDSo why is the fight for indexing so important that the Raise the Wage Coalition has kept the charge going?  To answer this, it would be helpful to remind ourselves what it is we talk about when we talk about the minimum wage.

No one can dispute that, even if we raise the wage to $9.50, that does not get a full-time worker supporting a family out of poverty according to the federal government’s own definition of poverty.   What we are arguing about, friends, is a floor.

Now think about the effort that has been put together to convince a DFL legislature to pass a bill.  Last year the Senate passed a bill for with a $7.75 an hour wage, which would have put us barely past conforming with the federal minimum wage (right now, Minnesota’s minimum wage is significantly lower than the federal minimum wage). To get them to move to $9.50 Minnesotans across the state mobilized to make their voices heard.  Oh, and the president and governor of the same party as the Senate’s majority set the bar even higher than $9.50.

Some of the best organizing and policy minds in the state are intensely focused right now on passing this minimum wage bill.  The Raise the Wage Coalition has been impressively co-chaired by Shar Knutson of the AFL-CIO, Peggy Flanagan of the Minnesota Children’s Defense Fund (CDF), and Brian Rusche of the Joint Religious Legislative Coalition (JRLC). The people moving phone banks, working at the Capitol and on weekends in districts, generating emails and calls to legislators — these are leaders of some of the most important social justice organizations in the state — non-profits like CDF, the Wilder Foundation, and many more; clergy and faith groups like the JRLC, which unites Catholic, Protestant, Jewish and Muslim entities, as well as ISAIAH’s coalition of over 100 churches; community organizations like Neighborhoods Organizing for Change, Take Action Minnesta and many more; unions like Education Minnesota, AFSCME, SEIU, the AFL-CIO’S state and regional federations, and many more.

The best organizers of the social justice movement in Minnesota are working tirelessly for this minimum wage increase, as we must. It is an impressive operation, but we cannot forget what it is we talk about the minimum wage.  The best minds of the social justice movement in Minnesota are immersed in a debate about the floor. Our best organizers, leaders and policy thinkers are debating essentially how poor we as a society are willing to let workers live.

This is not the visionary work a movement for social justice.  Again, this work is essential and we should all be proud of the collective effort, but let’s not kid ourselves about what we are doing here.  The heavy lift everyone is undertaking is to debate a freaking floor.  A Minimum. Can you imagine if all of that effort were directed at rebuilding the wealth of communities that was extracted as a result of the financial crisis?  Can you imagine if we as a movement were focused not on debating minimum wages but instead asking what we are going to do as a society about those making maximum wages, the CEOs whose salaries are so out of whack in this country?  What if we were all focused on offense, on fights that take head-on the growing gap between the richest in the country and the rest of us?  What if we were debating how we bring more prosperity instead of how low we can go?

Now that would be a movement.

Dorkiest Chant Ever. "What do We Want? MINIMUM WAGE! How do we want it? INDEXED!"

Dorkiest Chant Ever. “What do We Want? MINIMUM WAGE! How do we want it? INDEXED!”

THIS IS WHY WE NEED INDEXING. 

So the working poor do not have to see the power of their dollar diminish year after year

So we do not have to keep fighting this battle every few years.

And, for God’s sakes, so our most talented organizers and thousands of grassroots activists don’t have to move heaven and earth to accomplish small vision wins and can instead focus on the transformational victories working people in this country long for and desperately need.

We Can Do This.  We Will Do This.

There are encouraging signs.  We know the grassroots mobilization has had an impact.  We hear it from legislative aides exhausted from taking calls and answering emails.  We hear it from legislators themselves, some of whom are thrilled and some of whom are annoyed and say things like “you’re only hurting yourselves” (pro tip: a sign you’re winning).

The legislature just passed and the governor signed a tax bill that, in addition to reducing taxes on many middle and working class folks, also happens to reduce the amount the very wealthy in our state pay in gift and estate taxes.  The tax bill passed with a lot of urgency and fanfare.

Let’s apply the same urgency to getting this done so we can focus on transformational work.

I know we’re going to win this.  The people who mobilized are going to win this.  Let’s get this done and then harness that energy and move on to truly transformational work.

Minimum Rage: State Your Position, Senators

6 Mar

Progressives should thank the Minnesota Senate for making crystal clear why headlines are saying “Minimum wage talks break down.”  The issue separating the two DFL caucuses: indexing the new minimum wage to inflation:

“Inflation’s not going to happen. There won’t be a bill,” said Bakk, DFL-Cook. “If that’s the big hang up, it’s too bad because people could benefit from the higher wage.”

House Speaker Paul Thissen reacted just as bluntly to Bakk’s bluntness.

“The bottom line, to me, if the Senate wants to kill the bill, they should just tell Minnesotans directly and stop playing games with it,” said Thissen, DFL-Minneapolis.

For those of us who support a minimum wage, indexed to inflation, the Senate did us a favor when Majority Leader Bakk stated:

Bakk said he would vote for a minimum wage bill with an automatic inflator but he could not get a 34-vote majority to approve it.

“I can’t get there,” Bakk said.

Majority Leader Bakk

Majority Leader Bakk

Senator Bakk has put this squarely on the shoulders of his colleagues.  He says he personally supports it — but they don’t–or at least not enough of them.  Many of us who think the logical next step is to call on DFL Senators to make their positions known. Let’s test that theory. Sally Jo Sorensen at Bluestem Prairie is keeping a whip count.   This is where you come in, dear reader.  Call your Senator.  It doesn’t matter if you live in a safe DFL district, swing, rural, whatever.  Until you see your Senator’s position is listed on the whip list, assume she is a NO and ask. Then ask again and again. Call, email, fax, send a messenger pigeon whatever.  Here is a link where you can do all of those except for the pigeons.

Bluestem’s whip count includes all Senators, DFL and Republican.  In this post I am focused on DFLers.  One, because I am one and, like many others I identify not just as a Democrat but a Progressive Democrat. To me it’s not about the party for the party’s sake. It’s about politics for the sake of people.  For those of us who identify with Paul Wellstone’s clarion call “”I represent the Democratic wing of the Democratic party,” this is a moment of truth.

What we talk about when we talk about the minimum wage.

I recently spoke before a meeting of the Metropolitan Airports Commission (MAC), where many service workers have been fighting for better working conditions for years. Although the janitors who clean the terminal, members of SEIU Local 26, earn $14.27 an hour and have healthcare, vacation, sick day, holidays, and other benefits–those who do the exact same work cleaning the inside of airplanes make poverty wages.  Most have worked for minimum wage (or close to it) for years, their latest wage increase having come back when the federal minimum wage was last changed.  This is also true of the people who get disabled passengers around the airport on wheel chairs and carts.  They have been calling on the MAC, which is the governing body of the airport, to institute policies that ensure that the airport–which generates hundreds of millions of dollars in income every year and owns hundreds of millions more in investments–not be a place where someone working a full-time job has to live in abject poverty.

We had heard from MAC Commissioners and the staff who they take orders from that they were really hoping the legislature would just take this problem off their backs by raising the minimum wage.  I was stunned when I heard this and reminded of how our political discourse is often so far removed from the reality of actual, living working people.

So let us remind ourselves what we are talking about when we talk about the minimum wage: We are talking about a floor— what we as a society have said is the bare minimum an employer can pay a worker and still be considered an ethical, responsible company.  Bare. Minimum.  If the legislature passes the highest number anyone has talked about — $9.50 an hour — that annual salary puts the average person still well below the federal poverty level.  People cannot sustain themselves or a family on these wages.  And, as our economy as transferred wealth from working and middle classes to the wealthiest, the myth of minimum wage workers being just teenagers is–just that– a myth. Minimum wage is the new normal for millions of Americans.

The minimum wage fight in Minnesota and the country is not visionary.  We are not debating what we need to do to build a society where all are treated fairly and have equal opportunity for success.  We are debating a floor.  The bare minimum.  Let us please remember this as people call on our legislators to be “bold.”  It’s only bold because we’re calling it that.  We’re actually just asking you to be decent.

Do this because it is easy. Let those of us in the movement focus on the bigger problems that are causing the embarrassing wealth gaps our country is facing.  Let us turn our rage there.

Our collective failure to act has already hurt us all, whether you are a low-wage worker  or not.  Unsurprisingly, employers who pay the minimum wage end up creating masses of people who can only live supplementing their income with welfare, food stamps, or other forms of public assistance. Steve Dornfeld at MinnPost’s lays out the case in “How taxpayers subsidize low wage workers,” even as the headline gets it all wrong.  It’s not low-wage workers we are subsidizing, it is to enormous corporations like McDonald’s, WalMart, and Target that taxpayers are doling out welfare.

Index This.

Just as we are asking you not to be bold but decent by raising the wage, indexing that wage for inflation boils down to a simple premise: Do you believe that the working poor should lose purchasing power every year as inflation rises?  If you have no problem with that, then you should not support indexing. Otherwise, adjusting the minimum wage for inflation, using the Consumer Price Index, just makes sense — economically and especially politically.  Do we really want to keep having this battle every few years?

Legislators have heard people testify about the dangers of putting the minimum wage on “auto pilot”.  Without indexing, however, the minimum wage is still on auto pilot.  Currently, every year the cost of living goes up a little or maybe more and, as a result, the purchasing value of the minimum wage automatically goes down.  We have built in a real wage cut every year for workers.  On autopilot. This is one reason why since the late 1970s real wages have remained flat, while worker productivity has doubled.  Without indexing, we simply make it easier for those at the top of the economic pyramid to take for themselves an ever larger share of the work done by those below them.

Indexing is also not an untested or utopian proposal.  About a dozen states index their minimum wage.  Blue states like Oregon and Washington index, but so do purple states like Colorado and Florida, and even red states like Arizona and Missouri.  All of these states recognize that indexing helps keep a level playing field, instead of every year tipping the economic scales just a little further against low wage workers.

Do not buy the “it’s the rural Dems’ fault” line; Or, Let’s Talk Politics.

A funny thing happens on the way to a progressive bill becoming law.  Urban Democrats start blaming their rural counterparts for the caucus wavering on a progressive position. Minneapolis State Senator Kari Dziedzic is but one recent example.  In an article about a constituent town hall, the reporter describes the Senator’s position: “To pass the measure, Dziedzic said, they’ll need to gain support from other legislators, especially some in rural Minnesota who worry that an increased minimum wage would hurt the economy.”

Let’s dissect that.  In the Star Tribune’s recent poll on the minimum wage, residents of greater Minnesota were more likely to support a higher minimum wage hike.  While those surveyed in Hennepin and Ramsey Counties favored a $9.50 raise vs. $7.50 by 32% to 21%.  Greater Minnesota respondents, however, preferred the higher number 43% to 29%.

As Bluestem Prairie would say, Quit place-baiting, people! Resisting that temptation, let’s really look at the politics of the minimum wage fight in different scenarios for Democrats.

Urban Democrats

As in the example cited above, the most likely person you might hear the “it’s the rural guys’ fault” is an urban DFLer. If urban legislators kept focused on their own districts, however, what are some of the things they should consider?

The Minneapolis-Saint Paul area, being overwhelmingly Democratic and progressive, gives us an urban legislative delegation of “safe seats.”  That term has always rankled me, if only because over the years we have seen some interpret “safe” to mean “the bar is lower.”  Nope, my friends, the bar is higher.  You have the luxury, the sheer good fortune of not only getting to be legislators — you get to be organizers! Many play that role, especially at election time, when city DFLers organize doorknocks and other campaign assistance for their colleagues in tougher races.  Let’s apply that same spirit to policy, shall we?

What your constituents want to hear is not “well, I support it, but…” They want to see your leadership; and you want to give them that.  If an indexed minimum wage fails, your constituents will likely ask you a variation on the old question, “What did you do in the war, Daddy?”  What did you do when we fought this fight?  They will want to hold you accountable.  These are the kinds of issues that can make districts that are safe from Republicans maybe a little less safe for incumbents.

Suburban Democrats

The Star Tribune poll echoes those of other state and national polls.  Minimum wage increases are popular, and that is true across geographies.  That does not mean that they might not be for some politically risky — not because a majority of people in their district oppose a hike but because some particular, powerful and moneyed interests oppose it.  This is nothing to sneeze at.  Going against the Chamber of Commerce on any issue can mean a swing district is carpet-bombed by corporate money at election time, and the lit pieces do not even have to be about the minimum wage– in fact, they likely won’t be.  It won’t matter to that legislator what the message of the carpet bomb is if it causes a person to lose.

Our suburban DFLers are undoubtedly hearing by CEOs, lobbyists, representatives from the Chamber, who not only live in their districts but, more importantly, have a lot of money.

It is for these DFLers that we need our “safe” Dems to be real leaders.  When it is a big vote, it is an easier vote.  The more we give in to the notion that this is “controversial,” the harder it will be for these legislators.

One thing these and all Senators should remember: you are not up for reelection this year!  Whatever your fears are about voting for something that is actually popular with voters (but may cause Chamber of Commerce heartburn), remember that two years is a lifetime in politics.  They will find other things to be angry at you about, or ask you for other concessions you might be able to give, between now and 2016.

Now is the time to act.

Ambitious Democrats

A friend asked me last night, “can you imagine anyone being DFL-endorsed for statewide office who didn’t support this and fought for it?”  Why no. No I can’t.

That is all.

Minimum Rage. No, I mean it

Even as I state the case here to hold legislators accountable, let me say this.  There is no reason to express anger toward Senators–at least not yet.  We are in the middle of negotiations.  Part of the reason we need a whip count is we need to verify if it is true that there simply are not the votes.

When you call your Senator, state your position firmly but politely.  Resist the temptation to call anyone a sell-out or to question their integrity or motives.  At times like this progressives often think, “well, they should do this. They’re Democrats! It’s in the party platform!” And yes, I — like many others — posted the party platform on Facebook last night to remind people of the grassroots position on the minimum wage as a gentle reminder.

We must remember, however, is that this isn’t all about them.  Our job as progressives is not to get people elected and then watch them do great things.  Progressives vote for candidates as a means to an end, the end being policy that makes our world more just. But our job doesn’t stop at the voting booth.

Our job is to create the political space for people who want to do something to do it.  If your Senator is wavering, that is why s/he needs to hear from constituents — not to be yelled at but to be reassured that we will have their backs.  We must create the political space for them to do the right thing.

Finally, some well-deserved props

I mentioned above that the Senate is not up for reelection this year.  You know who is?  The House Democrats who last year proposed a $9.50 minimum wage, indexed for inflation and who this year continue the fight.  They understand that this is both good policy and politically smart (look at those poll numbers again!) — but do not for a second believe that many of them are not receiving the same kind of pressure that suburban Senators are receiving.  As you can see clearly in the Star Tribune article quoted above, Speaker Thissen is leading.  Representative Ryan Winkler is leading.

If you have a little time after calling your Senator, give a jingle to your DFL State Representative and thank them and their caucus for standing up for working people.  We will remember what you did in the war, Representatives.

CALL OR EMAIL YOUR SENATOR.  Hell, call and email them.  Then pass that information on to BluestemPrairie for the constituent whip count.  Go. Now!