SAN JOSE, CA — As fast food workers strike across the country and hourly wages hit new lows, the Congressional Progressive Caucus launched the Raise Up America campaign, a multi-city tour to raise awareness of the crises facing low-wage workers. The campaign, helmed by Rep. Keith Ellison (D-MN), will advocate for increases to federal and state minimum wages, stronger collective bargaining protections, and raise the alarm about unfair trade deals between companies and workers.
During the campaign launch at Netroots Nation on Friday, Ellison discussed with ThinkProgress the “scandal of low wages” keeping millions of people — predominantly women and people of color — from lifting themselves out of poverty. “As members of Congress dedicated to serving the people, we can’t just stand by and watch people get mistreated this way,” Ellison declared.
The congressman explained how companies have shifted increasingly to “permanent temporary workers” in order to avoid hiring full-time employees eligible for health care and overtime benefits.
“There are all kinds of games,” Ellison said, noting that companies will be able to take even more advantage of workers thanks to steep budget cuts pushed by Republicans:
This is why we got to make sure the Department of Labor is strong and their wages and hours division is well-staffed. Austerity and sequester is the enemy of these workers. Because what is austerity and sequester going to do? It’s going to shrink the number of Department of Labor lawyers who are going to be able to go defend these workers…If you shrink government to the size where you can drown it in the bathtub, that means that the one institution that can intercede for workers — which is the government, which has force of law behind it — is weakened. So we’ve got to call that out, because a lot of Americans are confused about austerity. They think this is about the budget. This has nothing to do with the budget — this has everything to with them trying to weaken those institutions that have the power to intercede for working people.
Ellison was accompanied by two fast food strikers, Darius Chambers of Detroit, MI and Rasheen Aldridge of St. Louis, MO. Both of them have struggled to survive on about $7.40 an hour for employers who deny them full-time work while humiliating them. Aldridge, a 19-year-old community college student who has worked in fast food for years, recounted how he was forced to hold a sign at Jimmy Johns telling customers he had made three wrong sandwiches, while one of his coworkers had to hold a sign saying she took 13 seconds too long while running the drive-through window.
“We have nowhere to go because we can’t take on this big billion dollar industry,” Aldridge said. “Because we’re replaceable. If we don’t do what they say, they can make up anything, and just quickly release us like that, bring somebody else in and say they can do our job. The only thing we’re asking for is a livable wage, respect, and somewhere to go to if there’s a problem.”
Business interests claim mandatory minimum wage rules, collective bargaining, and health care requirements are too costly. Ellison challenged this argument with his own question for these companies: “What are you paying your CEO? If you’re not paying your CEO that much, fine. You can’t tell me that you can’t pay health care, you can’t pay pension, you can’t pay nothing, but you’re paying your CEO 400 times what the average worker’s making.”
The campaign is also hoping to partner with responsible business owners and is in talks with Patriotic Millionaires, a progressive group of wealthy Americans who argue for higher taxes on higher income brackets. Ellison pointed out, “If you value your people, you’ll pay them right. You’ll make sure they’re well; you’ll make sure they can take a little time off if they have a baby.” He praised wholesale retailer Costco, which pays its employees about $21.96 an hour and has enrolled most employees in benefits. “Costco basically has the idea that it’s about not shareholders but stakeholders, everybody,” Ellison said. “The community, the environment, the workers, all that.”
Indeed, taxpayers pick up the slack when companies short-change their workers. Part-time employees who are denied a livable wage have little choice but to turn to government safety net programs like food stamps and Medicaid. In a single 300-person Walmart store, employees consume roughly a million dollars in taxpayer-funded public benefits. As Rasheen Aldridge said, “I don’t know anybody who wants to be on food stamps or rely on this government assistance. But [our employers] are making us do that.”
As many as 76 percent of Americans are already living paycheck to paycheck. The fight for minimum wage increases and fair labor practices will only grow more urgent as low-wage and part-time jobs continue to explode.