Public transit, living wage top 2014 “people’s” agenda

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ORLANDO, Fla. - With an eye on the 2014 elections and holding politicians in Orange County - home of Orlando and Walt Disney World - accountable for how their decisions affect low-income voters, a coalition of local labor and other progressive forces last week announced what they call the People's Platform.

The groups' wish list consists of passage of living wage, wage-theft and earned-sick time ordinances in the county, along with investment in public transportation and infrastructure and opposition to privatization of government functions and services.

"This agenda, the People's Platform, should be the agenda of our county commission because it's the will of the people," said Maria McCluskey, of community group Organize Now!

A report card will be released in time for Florida's August 2014 primary that will grade candidates based upon their positions on the coalition's issues, said McCluskey.

"The aim is to broaden participation in the democratic process," said McCluskey, "and increase voter turnout by educating voters on the significant impact that local elections have on our everyday lives."

"It's important that the people have a say in what's going on in local government," said Steve Wisniewski, president of Communications Workers of America Local 3108, which represents AT&T and Verizon workers in Central Florida. "Too often, big businesses are controlling the decision-making in this county, and it's time that we returned that power to the citizens."

Denise Diaz, lead organizer for Central Florida Jobs with Justice, said living wages were a "key issue" for the dozen groups behind the People's Platform, which includes the National Council of La Raza, Service Employees International Union Local 1199 and Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1596--which represents drivers for Lynx, the public bus service for Metro Orlando.

"No worker should have to live off of poverty wages," Diaz said, noting that local corporations such as Darden Restaurants (Olive Garden, Red Lobster) and attractions such as Disney are making record profits. "People should be able, in this county, to work 40 hours a week and take care of their families off of that."

Although the coalition did not say what a "living wage" would be in Orange County, a family of four needs yearly earnings of at least $23,550 to be considered above the threshold of poverty, according to current guidelines from the federal Department of Health and Human Services.

Florida's minimum wage is $7.79 an hour, as of 2013 ($4.77 for tipped workers). The Orlando Sentinel recently reviewed data from the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics about wages in Central Florida. Among their findings were that Metro Orlando, with an economy dominated by tourism and service industry employment, ranks No. 2 among the top 100 U.S. metro areas for the number of local jobs - 37 percent - that pay less than $25,000 a year.

Diaz, whose group also works on issues of public transportation and wage theft, called upon officials to create a dedicated source of funding for Lynx to avoid cuts in service and overcrowded buses.

Local organizations have begun documenting incidences of wage theft in Central Florida, which Diaz called a "rampant" problem. Currently, only the Sunshine State's Miami-Dade, Broward and Alachua counties have ordinances that allow workers to recover monies due them when bosses have shortchanged them on compensation.

Steve Camacho, public information officer for Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 86, representing 800 corrections officers in Orange County, said that turning government functions over to private companies has proven unsuccessful because the companies' main concern is making profits.

"Privatization leads to paying more for less," said Camacho. "The profits must come from somewhere, and that somewhere generally is the quality of service."

Sept. 11 marked the one-year anniversary of the Orange County Commission's willful violation of its own charter by its refusal to place an earned sick-time ordinance on the ballot, despite more than 70,000 voters having signed petitions requesting that. If the measure had passed, companies with 15 or more workers would have been required to give them up to seven days of sick time annually.

Prior to their vote, the commissioners and county Mayor Teresa Jacobs had been lobbied by the Chamber of Commerce and corporations such as Disney, Darden and Mears Transportation. It later came to light that Jacobs and the commissioners had been texting with big business representatives while discussing whether to place sick time on the ballot.

A three-judge panel ruled in February that the measure had to appear on the August 2014 ballot. That vote has, however, been made moot by passage this year of a law that stops Florida counties and cities from mandating employee benefits.

Additionally, a lawsuit has been filed seeking to knock sick time off the ballot again, citing the benefits law and the cost of printing ballots with the measure included - although the supervisor of elections has said that keeping sick time on the ballot does not increase his printing costs.

The organizers of the sick-time campaign, which includes Organize Now!, are, said McCluskey, exploring their legal options in response to the law and the lawsuit.

Photo: Walt Disney World, Orlando, Florida. Flickr (CC)

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