“How can we get 64 million low-wage workers to the polls?”

This article is part of a series on the Democratic National Convention.

PHILADELPHIA – Poverty-income workers and their allies gathered in Philadelphia City Hall, July 27, to strategize on how to mobilize the 64 million workers who earn less than $15 an hour to go to the polls and elect a President, Senate, and House that will act to raise workers’ wages next November 8.

Hector Figueroa, president of SEIU Local 32BJ welcomed the crowd, many of them delegates to the Democratic National Convention. “There are 64 million workers in the U.S,. who make less than $15 an hour,” Figueroa said. “The typically low-wage service industry is growing rapidly while good-paying manufacturing and white-collar jobs are declining. This massive shift in the economy has given way to a new voting bloc: low-wage worker voters.”

This voting bloc, he said, represents nearly one in four Americans “and will play a huge role in the coming election….the reality is that these 64 million workers—-forty two percent of the workforce—are largely ignored, not seen as a voting bloc.”

(SEIU) Local 32BJ sponsored the panel discussion just days after the union averted a walkout at the Philadelphia airport during the DNC.

Steve Rosenthal, SEIU’s interim political director, projected on a screen data defining poverty-wage workers. “We see these workers everywhere in the economy,” Rosenthal said. “They are disproportionately women, 55 percent of the total, and African American and Latino.”

He cited North Carolina where two million workers toil at below $15 an hour. Yet 1.2 million of them are unregistered to vote. Republican, Mitt Romney won North Carolina in 2012 by only 92,004 votes.

Targeted engagement aimed at registering these low income workers to vote “could yield 105,000 votes,” enough to tip the state for the Democrats in November, Rosenthal said. The Republican power structure “does everything they can to put up barriers, to make it tough for us,” he said, such as eliminating same-day registration, early voting voter ID laws and other measures that make it easier to vote.

Vigorous grassroots campaigns on a range of issues such as the $15 minimum wage, he said, is key “to turning this situation around,” convincing the unregistered that there is a good reason to register and vote, to oust the Republicans and elect candidates committed to raising the minimum wage.

SEIU Local 32BJ staged a sit-in of hundreds of Philadelphia Airport workers at one of the terminals July 14 to press the workers’ demand for a $15 minimum wage.

The local had voted overwhelmingly to strike on the eve of the DNC, a stoppage that would have created a nightmare for DNC delegates and guests. A year ago, the workers, some earning just over the Federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour, won coverage under Philadelphia’s “living wage” law guaranteeing them at least $12 an hour.

Shakira Stewart, a Philadelphia Airport worker who led her 1,000 fellow workers in that struggle was a panelist. She was there with her two young children, Te’ray and Daryl. She explained that opening the eyes of the working poor to the possibility of winning is key to getting them registered to vote, getting them to the polls to vote in November.

“Our voices need to be heard. Last week we called off our strike because American Airlines decided to come to the table. We won a victory. Without the union we are nothing. We have no voice. I was not into politics until this fight. It is important for us to vote for candidates who will support us. The Republicans are not for us.”

Shakira Stewart, herself, was the target of retribution for her leadership, her work schedule shifted, forcing her to find a babysitter or lose her job.

Former Philadelphia City Councilman Wilson Goode, author of the Philadelphia Living Wage law, and now a fulltime adviser to the City Council, was present at the news conference. He told the People’s World the City Council at one point refused to approve a new multi-billion lease between the airlines and the city until they agreed to a “labor peace” side agreement that compels the airlines to recognize the “Living Wage” law and pay the workers at least $12 an hour.

Asked if the city could expand his living wage law to cover private-sector workers as well, Goode explained, “We are prohibited by state law from enacting a higher minimum wage for all workers. The State Constitution does not allow municipalities to enact high minimum wages.”

He added, “The overall goal must be to get a $15 Federal minimum wage. That is part of the Democratic Party’s platform. I think the $15 minimum wage is going to be instrumental.” The movement for a higher minimum wage and Hillary Clinton herself “will use that plank in the platform to get low wage workers to the polls.”

Photo: It started at the Liberty Bell and ended July 19 at the Philadelphia Airport. Low wage workers from all over the city stood side by side with airport workers demanding $15 and a union. SEIU activists are laying plans to mobilize a huge vote among low wage workers.  |  SEIU 32BJ Facebook page

Correction: In an earlier version of the story, SEIU Local 32BJ President Hector Figueroa’s name was incorrect. We regret the error.


Tim Wheeler
Tim Wheeler

Tim Wheeler has written over 10,000 news reports, exposés, op-eds, and commentaries in his half-century as a journalist for the Worker, Daily World, and People’s World. Tim also served as editor of the People’s Weekly World newspaper.  His book News for the 99% is a selection of his writings over the last 50 years representing a history of the nation and the world from a working-class point of view. After residing in Baltimore for many years, Tim now lives in Sequim, Wash.