The minimum wage, labor and the 2012 elections

This is not about the setback in Wisconsin. It’s not a rounded assessment of the pluses and minuses of the heroic effort by labor and progressives in Wisconsin to recall Walker. But Wisconsin is a good starting point.

One of the problems in Wisconsin was messaging. At the height of the demonstrations in Madison and around the state, in the fervor and excitement of the recall petitioning, the message was crystal clear. Labor is under attack. All workers and their families are under attack. The attack on public workers bargaining rights is the tip of the spear aimed at rolling back wages, pensions, benefits and working conditions for all workers.

In the occupation of the Rotunda in Madison, college students, high school students, teachers, firefighters, police, farmers, bikers, steelworkers, autoworkers, building trades workers, non-union workers, neighbors and many more of the 99 percent understood. If the public unions were crushed then they were next. It was clear that defending union and bargaining rights was a basic question of democracy for the working class. It was clear that the Koch brothers and the corporate rightwing were out to lower the boom on all workers and their families.

It was certainly not labor’s fault, but the message got watered down after the petitioning and heading into the actual vote for recall. Part of that was a poor Democratic candidate. Part of it was the incredible amount of outside corporate money.

One lesson for labor in the 2012 elections is that labor’s messaging has to be clear. Unions and labor need to speak independently for all of the working class and working families. We cannot let the corporate right-wing brand us as a special interest, only out for our members.

So now to the minimum wage. Rep. Jessie Jackson, Jr. and Rep. John Conyers, with 20 cosponsors, have introduced H.R. 5901: “Catching Up To 1968 Act of 2012.” It is a simple one-page piece of legislation that would raise the minimum wage to $10 an hour and index the minimum wage to the Consumer Price Index (CPI), meaning that every year the minimum wage would increase according to the rise in the CPI.

What a gift to the labor movement for the 2012 elections. By championing this critical raise in the minimum wage we say to all that labor is about bringing the lowest wageworkers up. Championing HR 5901 while campaigning for candidates puts labor in the forefront of fighting for all workers. Raising the minimum wage is a great way to fight the “race to the bottom.”

Not to mention that raising the minimum wage is a very important force for improving the economy. The real “uncertainty” is lack of demand for goods and services. Small business won’t hire until they see the need to meet increases in demand. Minimum wage earners have to spend all of their income on necessities from food to housing. Further raising the minimum wage puts upward pressure on wages for all workers. It sets a floor.

Women, youth and people of color are found in minimum wage jobs way out of proportion to their participation in the workforce. A fighting campaign for raising the minimum wage can also be a vital part of the struggle for working class unity.

Of course the minimum wage cannot be labor’s only issue in the elections. But added to the mix of defending workers rights, fighting for real jobs programs like infrastructure building and repair, speaking out clearly against racism, for immigrant rights, and against all efforts to divide the working class, HR 9501 can be a real clear message. The labor movement has always been a champion of a livable minimum wage. Now, the Jackson/Conyers bill gives labor a critical tool for putting the fight for all workers into the election mix.

Photo: davidd // cc 2.0


Scott Marshall
Scott Marshall

Scott has been a life long trade unionist and was active in rank and file reform movements in the Teamsters, Machinists and Steelworkers unions in the 1970s and '80s. He was co-chair of the Save Our Jobs committee of USWA local 1834 at Pullman Standard in Chicago and active in nationwide organizing against plant shutdowns and layoffs. He was a founder of the unemployed organization Jobs or Income Now (Join), in Chicago, and the National Congress of Unemployed Organizations in the 1980s. Scott remains active in SOAR (Steelworkers Active Organized Retirees). He lives in Chicago.