You will not be able to vote this November whether the people who clean hotel rooms, bus dishes or help the senior citizens deserve a $15 an hour minimum wage, but that does not mean workers have lost ground this Labor Day.
No, the Minneapolis City Council did not “steal your vote,” nor did the Minnesota Supreme Court. Instead, they wisely decided that a citywide vote to change the charter was not the proper way to address the issue.
Had the council or the courts opened the door to government by referendum, you can bet corporations and other special interests would flood future ballots with family-friendly sounding bills that actually take money and benefits out of the pockets of workers.
But the argument over minimum wages, paid sick leave and other workplace issues has actually created an awareness and opportunity that hasn’t existed for years.
“Labor issues are very much an important topic these days, which is a big improvement over a few years ago when Labor Day was the rare time to consider them,” said John Budd, a professor at the Carlson School of Management.
Kris Jacobs, executive director of the Jobs Now Coalition, agrees. “This is an entirely new situation, that is, Minnesotans talking openly about money.”
The reality was that before 2014, workers could be fired for exchanging their pay information, Jacobs said. That changed when the Legislature passed the Women’s Economic Security Act, which prohibits employers for firing workers who discuss wages.
Jacobs said Minnesotans talk openly about health problems, family turmoil and even, eh-hem, sex, before they will discuss money. That holds everyone back, she said.
Veronica Mendez Moore, co-director of Centro de Trabajadores Unidos en Lucha, has witnessed a lot of progress for low-paid workers.
“I see the last couple of years as a high point for workers standing up,” Moore said. “We’ve seen more poor people and people of color getting involved. Here at CTUL we’ve had huge victories.”
CTUL reached an agreement with Target for a responsible contractor policy that helped janitors, who worked for contracted companies, get better pay and working conditions. That has now spread to Macy’s and Best Buy, Moore said.
In a recent blog post, Carlson’s Budd called those worker-corporate partnerships “a fascinating model.”
“It’s not abdication to the vagaries of the market or one side or the other finding a way to dictate its agenda,” Budd said. “It’s not a central authority trying to find one-size-fits-all solutions. Rather ... it’s a new institutional way to create what I’ve called, ‘Employment with a Human Face.’ ”
Moore said those agreements were the result of five years of searching out workers who were isolated, such as night janitors who worked in small groups, and getting them to recognize common goals. It worked.
CTUL has also won class action lawsuits against companies that underpaid or failed to pay immigrant workers. Moore would like to see more proactive pursuit of “wage theft” violations.
Virginia Miller is one of the janitors who joined her co-workers in demanding better pay and treatment.
“We feel very proud because we won these victories,” Miller said. “Now that we’ve won, we’ve been able to open doors, not just for us but for other workers. Now all of us feel united.”
Jacobs warns there is still a long way to go, however. She said that 800,000 Minnesota jobs are in low-wage occupations, or nearly 30 percent of all the jobs in the state. A clear majority of these jobs are held by women and have a combined median wage of just $11.70 per hour.
“This falls far short of the $15.00 per hour that’s required to make ends meet for a two-worker family of three in Minnesota, according to the state’s updated Cost of Living study,” Jacobs said.
“Unfortunately, education is no panacea for the problem of low wages,” Jacobs said. “For the workers in low-wage occupations, improving skills will not improve wages. Instead of focusing so much on making workers more worthy by raising skill levels in preparation for the jobs of the future that never seem to arrive, we need to begin finding ways to raise wages for the jobs that people already have.”
“People need to eat and live indoors,” Jacobs said. “Right now, somebody you are standing next to on the sidewalk is hungry. A person in your family is bereft and desperate. Lack of compassion for fellow human beings and their kids is shocking. This is not abstract. There is data showing that the only thing people hate more than poor people is poor people’s kids.”
But for once, people and politicians are talking about money, and how much it costs to make ends meet in America in 2016. Even if current proposals for $15 get approved, however, wages and the cost of basic necessities won’t inch much closer for four more years.
Follow Jon on Twitter: @jontevlin