Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Make 2016 About Minimum Wage Ballot Initiatives

2014 Election Analysis:

Make 2016 About Minimum Wage Ballot Initiatives

Lane Windham

Democrats and progressives can take one key lesson away from the 2014 Republicans’ rout: Americans want a raise, and will vote for minimum wage ballot initiatives even in red-leaning states. Minimum wage increases passed in Arkansas, Nebraska, South Dakota and Alaska - - even as voters in each of these states also elected a Republican senator.

A whopping 67 percent of Alaskans voted to increase the minimum wage to $9.75 by 2016 - - yes, that’s Sarah Palin’s state. Voters in the Deep South’s Arkansas voted 65 percent for a minimum wage increase, and in Nebraska 59 percent of voters chose to up the minimum.

What’s going on here? After all, Democrats support a minimum wage. President Obama has been pushing for a $10.10 minimum. So why are voters turning down the candidates who support a raise, while voting for the raise itself?

People are still struggling economically – not only in the U.S., but around the world. They need their elected leaders to have big, bold plans for shared prosperity in an age in which new economic structures mean fewer jobs and more inequality. As Harold Meyerson writes in some of the most insightful election analysis out there, the Democrats find themselves in the same quandary as center left parties throughout the world. They are “parties that purport to be the economic advocates of the middle and working classes, but preside over abysmal economies with no clear sense of how to make them better.” We need a new social compact, and tinkering around the edges won’t do it.

It turns out that when the gods who run elections gave voters a chance to vote for good economic policy, they grabbed that chance. Voters essentially went underneath political parties who they perceive as not serving their economic needs.

So let’s give voters even more opportunities to vote for a minimum wage. Let’s make 2016 the year of the minimum wage ballot initiative. (After all, there is now virtually no chance of Congress raising it on a federal level any time soon.) A nationwide push for minimum wage ballot initiatives will not only give working people a much-needed raise, but will serve to bring out the young people, people of color and working-class voters the Democrats will need to win office. If Democrats offer a more robust economic plan, many of those ballot voters may stick with the party.

Some states, like North Carolina, don’t allow statewide ballot initiatives. There, both houses must vote by a super majority to refer a constitutional amendment. So, go local. Cities like Raleigh and Greensboro both can pass their own referendums - - and both are cities with the sorts of voters Democrats need to turn out.

Democrats still need a big economic vision, and minimum wage ballot initiatives aren’t a full platform. Yet such initiatives do seem to be a tool that America’s voters will support - - even those who are seeing red.

Monday, September 1, 2014

Caution: Making a Living While Black

Lane Windham

After the events of Ferguson, I was inspired to write a Labor Day piece about the deep-seated economic divide. It ran in the Baltimore Sun today. The piece is below:

Caution: Making a Living While Black

Though we’ve narrowed the racial divide since the days of segregation, the economic divide between whites and blacks has been remarkably persistent for the last 40 years. We live in a nation in which if you’re black, you likely earn less, have less wealth and are less likely to hold a job than someone who is white. This Labor Day, let’s take a moment to reflect on the dangers of trying to make a living while black in the United States.

We should be shocked by the fact that the unemployment gap between African-Americans and whites is virtually unchanged from that of 40 years ago. If you’re black, you’re still twice as likely as a white person to be unemployed, virtually the same gap as in 1972, according to government statistics. In Baltimore, you’re even a bit worse off, according to a recent study by the National Urban League; the black unemployment rate of 15 percent there is more than double the white rate of 6 percent.

Once employed, working while black is risky behavior. African-American workers are likely to earn less than whites -- black weekly wages are 78 percent of white wages. This affects not only black workers, of course, but entire families. The median family income for America’s black workers is 60 percent of white workers, and in Baltimore, it’s only 54 percent. The wealth gap is even worse. White families tend to have a more forgiving financial cushion to protect them in tough times. They’re more likely to own their homes, for instance, and to have ample savings. The recent recession hit black families hard. Before the recession, in 2007, whites had 4.3 times as much wealth as blacks. By 2010, the white wealth advantage grew to six times that of African-Americans.

There has been progress. A larger percentage of the nation’s well-paid professionals are African-American -- 7.4 percent, up from 5.7 percent in 1990. Still, African-Americans are over-represented in the nation’s worst jobs. Far too many black workers struggle to cobble together a series of low-wage, precarious service jobs in order to make ends meet.

We do have tools that can address our nation’s persistent racial economic divide. First, we can recognize that we need a new social contract for the 21st century, one offering a more secure safety net for workers in the kinds of part-time, low-wage jobs that workers of color are more likely to hold. For instance, we should consider building a more robust federal retirement system and child care reimbursements which workers can access across jobs. In addition, we can build a more rational system to handle unemployment. Most of the Western nations with whom the U.S. competes economically have a federal unemployment system. We have a patched-together state system which covers less than half of the nation’s unemployed, a deficit that disproportionately affects black workers and their families. Finally, we can restore all workers’ freedom to form unions. A union contract helps black workers narrow the racial divide. A black worker with a union made 27 percent more per hour than black workers who weren’t in unions, according the government statistics for 2008 through 2013.

”What does it profit a man to be able to eat at an integrated lunch counter if he doesn’t earn enough money to buy a hamburger and a cup of coffee,” Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. asked Memphis strikers and labor supporters in 1968, days before his death. Baltimore was among the first segregated cities in the nation to desegregate public accommodations, opening up lunch counters and restrooms in March of 1960. Yet today, too many of the city’s -- and the nation’s -- African-Americans still lag behind economically. King knew that racism and violence take many forms, and are found in far more places than the end of a gun. This Labor Day - - especially as we begin to parse the full meaning of the recent events in Ferguson, Missouri - - we should carefully consider how to remedy the injury inflicted by our nation’s unremitting racial economic divide.

Lane Windham is a PhD candidate in U.S. history at the University of Maryland. Contact her at or @LaneWindham.

You can view the story on the Sun's website by clicking here: Caution: Making a Living While Black

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

VW Chattanooga Vote: It's Historic, But Not a First

by Lane Windham

I put the VW Chattanooga Vote into a 40-year historical context in my new article on the Institute for Southern Studies' Facing South: VW Workers Not First to Face Choice on Union I was inspired to write this piece because a number of reporters have written the story without fully grasping how long Southern auto workers have been trying - - and even sometimes succeeding - - at forming unions.

Thursday, January 30, 2014

Lane Windham: Why Employers Want Union Membership to Rise

My article from today's American Prospect:

Why Alt-Labor Groups are Making Employers Mighty Nervous - -

Why Employer Groups Want Union Membership to Rise

Union membership remained steady last year—steady at its near-hundred-year low. A mere 6.7 percent of private-sector workers are union members, as are 11.3 percent of U.S. workers overall, according to figures released last Friday by the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS.)

Those government union membership statistics, however, don’t capture an entire swath of new, exciting and emerging labor activists—“alt-labor” activists—whom alarmed employers would like to see regulated by the same laws that apply to unions. Yet before we regulate them as unions, shouldn’t we first count them as unions?

Consider those striking fast food workers you’ve been reading about, the ones calling for a $15 an hour wage. Their numbers are not counted in the union membership figures. How about those Wal-Mart workers who struck for Black Friday and just won a key court case? Uncounted. What about the day laborers who joined any one of hundreds of workers’ centers nationwide? You got it, not included. Neither are the restaurant workers, home health care workers, taxi drivers or domestic workers, all of whom are organizing for workplace power outside traditional unions.

Why are these labor activists uncounted? The BLS bases its union membership numbers on the Current Population Survey (CPS). Every month, the government asks about 15,000 people whether they are union members or members of an employee association like a union. The people who went on strike at McDonald’s for a day, or who joined a local workers’ center, will almost certainly say “no” to this question, because they don’t pay union dues or aren’t covered by a contract. The government’s questions have no place for these workers who are part of a new breed of “alt-labor” groups leveraging workplace power outside the realm of collective bargaining —such as through worker centers, labor coalitions, or the three million members of the AFL-CIO’s Working America. In addition, the government union numbers exclude people who report they are self-employed. In todays’ economy, that could easily mean day laborers and domestic workers who are part of new labor groups.

This problem is not a new one. Although the media has long used the BLS numbers to gauge labor’s strength, the BLS numbers only paint part of the picture. For instance, these numbers have never reflected the numbers of people who tried to form unions each year, but who were thwarted by resistant employers or weakened labor law. However, there are other government statistics we can use to find a trail for these would-be unionists, like the numbers who tried to form unions through voting in National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) union elections. However, in order to truly capture today’s morphing labor movement, the government would have to ask different questions—ones which aimed to pinpoint wider involvement in today’s iterations of worker groups.

Employers don’t actually want the BLS union membership numbers to rise. They will tout the news about low 2013 union membership without counting such new activists among labor’s ranks. Nevertheless, the Chamber of Commerce, the National Restaurant Association and anti-union coalition groups publicly insist that these new groups are unions, because they want them to be subjected to the same kinds of legal limits that have come to constrain America’s labor unions, such as not being able to strike in sympathy with other workers. Scott DeFife, an executive vice president at the National Restaurant Association, said as much to the New York Times recently: “They’re trying to have it both ways. They’re a union and not a union. They’re organizing workers but not organizing workers. They have a history of tactics unions couldn’t get away with.” DeFife’s group insists that the Restaurant Opportunity Center (ROC) is a union despite ROC’s insistence that it is not.

Do these uncounted “alt-labor” groups serve the same function that unions once did? No, they do not. When workers gained the right to state-backed collective bargaining through unions in the 1930s, it was one of the few checks the U.S. ever effectively put on employer power. As a result, people who have a union today make 26 percent more than those who do not, according to the government’s new statistics, and are much more likely to have health insurance and real pensions. The new labor groups have yet to harness a comparable kind of state-backed power with which to force employers to play fair. However, in a 21st century economy in which collective bargaining has been so severely weakened by structural changes and the roll back in workers’ rights, these new labor activists represent an important frontier for people concerned about worker power and economic inequality writ large. And their impact is becoming increasingly clear. President Obama’s $10.10 minimum wage for federal contractors rose on a groundswell of economic activism driven by labor groups both “counted” and “uncounted.”

You know that workers are on to something when employers start to get nervous. It turns out the low union membership statistics may not be as good a measure of labor’s future as employers would hope.