Thursday, June 20, 2013 | 2 a.m.
Labor unions have been knocked back, knocked down and knocked out for so long that a new generation of organizers is beginning to try something new. Instead of unionizing and then protesting, they’re protesting first.
That may sound a little oversimplified, but not by much. The new strategy involves helping workers to protest for more money and benefits and, after winning some victories, hope the workers will form a union.
So far, the campaign appears to be growing. Perhaps you have seen — or been inconvenienced — by one of the protests that have sprung up since early April in Chicago; New York; Milwaukee; St. Louis; Detroit; Seattle; and Washington, D.C., at fast-food restaurants and, in some cities, retail stores.
In the wake of the Occupy Wall Street protests, and public-worker union protests in Wisconsin and elsewhere, the issue of income inequality has a new urgency — especially when private-sector union membership is down to 6.6 percent amid growing obstacles to unionizing and collective bargaining.
Although the Change to Win Federation, made up of the Service Employees International Union and other partner unions, is assisting the national campaign, each city has its own local organizing coalitions and issues.
In the nation’s capital, the Fast Food Forward protests have a special federal flavor aimed directly at the White House.
They’re urging President Barack Obama to sign an executive order that would require contractors in federal facilities to increase what they pay their employees.
Among the real people it would affect is Melissa Roseboro, who joined a strike in May from her job at the McDonald’s in the Smithsonian’s Air and Space Museum. She works 35 hours a week, she told a congressional hearing in May, for $8.33 an hour with no benefits — on which she helps to support her two children.
“I made this sacrifice to send the president a clear message,” she told me after the hearings. “People are suffering.”
She’s hardly alone. Conservatives pitch the myth that the poor and working-class who are struggling to get ahead are just lazy and looking for “free stuff.” The truth for most low-wage workers is that their hard work is being rewarded with low wages and shrinking opportunities to move up the income ladder.
“Rebuilding the labor movement is, I believe, the only way to rebuild the middle class,” said Joseph Geevarghese, deputy director of Change to Win. “Instead of setting a good example, the federal government is part of the problem.”
Raising the federal minimum wage was President Obama’s central economic proposal in his State of the Union address in February. Increasing the wage to $9 an hour from its current $7.25 and indexing it to inflation would lift hundreds of thousands of families above the poverty line, the Obama administration argued.
But the proposal has stalled in Congress, where House Republicans voted down a Democratic attempt to raise the minimum wage to more than $10 an hour.
Republicans argue that raising the cost of labor will increase unemployment. But studies by David Card of the University of California, Berkeley, among others, demonstrated in real-life experiments that raising the minimum wage did not result in labor loss, partly because it helped to reduce turnover.
That view is supported by such impressive spokespersons as discount giant Costco’s CEO Craig Jelinek, who said in a statement that his company pays a starting wage of $11.50 across the country and is “still able to keep our overhead costs low.” In March, he not only endorsed Obama’s proposal but called for an even higher minimum wage increase — to $10.10 an hour, plus indexing it to inflation.
In fact, if the current federal minimum wage only kept up with inflation since its 1968 peak, it would now be $10.58, according to a March study by the Center for Economic and Policy Research. But the minimum wage will stay where it is, losing value over time because of inflation, unless congressional Republicans agree to bump it up.
In the meantime, President Obama could bring some relief and set a good example. He has the power with his presidential pen to require a minimum wage increase for employees of businesses including fast food vendors that have contracts with the federal government. It wouldn’t relieve all low-wage workers, but it would be a powerful place to start.
Clarence Page is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune.