"That minimum-wage job saved our home": Elizabeth Warren's crusade toward higher wages

Democrats are moving beyond coddling Wall Street and minimalist minimum wage politics. Will it take a civil war?

Published January 9, 2015 9:36PM (EST)

Richard Trumka, Elizabeth Warren, Barack Obama       (Reuters/AP/Kevork Djansezian/Jose Luis Magana/Yuri Gripas)
Richard Trumka, Elizabeth Warren, Barack Obama (Reuters/AP/Kevork Djansezian/Jose Luis Magana/Yuri Gripas)

If the U.S. didn't have a labor movement, Americans would have to invent one. AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka understands that, so that's what he's trying to do.

I know, that’s a contradiction: there is an American labor movement, and Trumka is its leader. But it’s greatly diminished from its power in the 1950s, with union membership down from a high of 35 percent to around 12 percent, and private sector membership under 7 percent. When union ranks peaked in the 1940s and 50s, American workers’ wages were at their highest, and income inequality at its lowest.

But as union membership declined, so did average wages. A study by the Economic Policy Institute found that the decline of unions accounts for one third of the growth of wage inequality in the last 30 years. And on Friday, even as the unemployment rate ticked down again for December, to 5.6 percent, hourly earnings did too.

We’re not likely to return to the glory days of union power any time soon. So in the last few years Trumka has been busy forming alliances with progressives to build a labor movement in which unions are central, but they’re not the only way to support workers. From backing Working America, to advance progressive politics even among non-union members, to supporting the “Fight for $15” movement to hike wages for non-union fast-food and big box retail workers, to joining in the call for changes in police practices in Ferguson, Mo., New York and elsewhere, the AFL-CIO has been active in new ways of late. Progressive union leaders and their allies are trying to envision a powerful 21st century labor movement, knowing it won't look like it did in the 20th.

It’s in that context that the AFL-CIO held its “Raising Wages” summit Wednesday, keynoted by Sen. Elizabeth Warren, a staunch union ally charting a new way forward for the Democratic Party. The summit grappled with several paradoxes at once.  There’s more activism afoot than we’ve seen in decades -- fast food strikes, police protest, immigration action, student debt organizing -- and yet there’s been little practical political progress on those fronts (except recently immigration) so far. Meanwhile, under President Obama, the economy has finally recovered from the 2008 crash, with 58 consecutive months of job growth, record Dow levels, soaring GDP and declining unemployment, yet outside the top 10 percent of Americans, most people aren’t feeling it.

And while polls show Americans support Democratic economic policies like raising the minimum wage and providing paid family leave, Democrats got thrashed at the polls in November, even as minimum wage hikes passed in several red states.


The minimum wage issue itself, in fact, has come to symbolize a Democratic Party that offers minimal ideas for improving the economy. On the right, Republicans mock it. "I don't think there's a mother or father sitting around a kitchen table tonight in America who are saying, 'You know honey, if my son or daughter could just make a higher minimum wage, my God, all our dreams would be realized," Gov. Chris Christie demagogued in October. "Is that what parents aspire to for their children?" Christie had no answer for declining wages at all, but the retort stung.

On the left, the minimum wage has strong support, but as a galvanizing political appeal, it’s not working. “Raising the minimum wage is great, but it’s not going to solve the problem of massive inequality,” noted Jennifer Epps-Addison of Wisconsin Jobs Now at the Raising Wages event.

So the summit was designed to pull together a broader agenda to address a bigger problem: the alarming stagnation, and even erosion, of wages for working and middle class Americans over the last 30 years. The historic tie between productivity and wage growth has been severed: Productivity is up 90 percent since 1989, but wages are only up 2 to 3 percent. Between 1935 and 1980, the bottom 90 percent of Americans received 70 percent of all income growth; they’ve gotten zero since 1997.  And even during the recent “recovery,” all of the wage gains have gone to the top 10 percent; between 2009 and 2013, real wages actually fell for the bottom 90 percent of Americans. That looks to be true again in 2014.

These facts are increasingly known, especially on the left, but the solutions aren’t clear. The summit was designed to surface and promote solutions, but it was trying to do something more metaphysical, too: To counter the idea that stagnating and declining wages are something akin to a law of nature, an act of God, a misfortune that simply struck the U.S. naturally and inevitably; the result of globalization or technological displacement or a mismatch between jobs and workers. There are many theories, but all of them share pessimism that there’s not much to be done to bend the arc of the moral universe toward higher wages.

Raising Wages summiteers disagreed. “I categorically reject the notion that it’s a structural problem and we can’t do anything about it,” Labor Secretary Thomas Perez told an enthusiastic crowd of about 300 activists. “Low wages are not structural, they’re not inevitable, they’re a choice. No benefits are a choice.” A political movement will be required to force different choices, Perez observed, but he said he’s an optimist.

“Remember we’re celebrating Martin Luther King Day in a few weeks. We’re not celebrating George Wallace Day.” That woke up the crowd with laughter. A movement made King’s dream reality, and defeated Wallace, and a new movement can make epic changes again.

Perez and others ticked off a list of ways to get wages climbing again. Raising the minimum wage still tops the list. Strengthening protections for union organizing is crucial. The Obama administration is revising the standard for when employees are eligible for overtime pay, which will help millions of new workers (though there’s controversy over at what income level the requirement should phase out)

The Labor Department is cracking down on corporations’ abuse of independent contractors – refusing to call folks “employees” because that would trigger benefits and other labor law protections. And finally, the summit backed paid family leave when people have children or must care for sick parents (though there’s no agreement between the White House and liberal Democrats about how to pay for such a new benefit.)

In fact, Perez’s list served as a reminder that while the administration and liberals agree on a lot, they disagree about timing and scale and how much the president can do himself.

“You’ve got to hold us accountable,” Perez said in closing. The next speaker, Sen. Elizabeth Warren, showed she intended to do just that.

The standing-room-only press corral examined Warren’s speech mainly for whether and how it flamed Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, and there was some of that. She framed it with a Politico piece headlined “Everything is awesome,” which looked at the soaring Dow, job growth and GDP and the declining unemployment rate – and explained why things don’t feel awesome for many of us.

“The president and his team deserve credit for the steps they’ve taken,” she allowed. “In particular, job growth is a really big deal -- good for you Mr. President.” That sounded a little professorial and condescending.

But Warren’s great gift, and what this movement needs, is the ability to connect all those dry statistics about declining worker wages, in the face of a booming economy, to actual political decisions made by Republicans and yes, Democrats. Her slams on Democrats made most headlines, but there’s nothing here she hasn’t said before.

Pretty much the whole Republican Party – and, if we’re going to be honest, too many Democrats – talked about the evils of 'big government' and called for deregulation. It sounded good, but it was really about tying the hands of regulators and turning loose big banks and giant international corporations to do whatever they wanted to do—turning them loose to rig the markets and reduce competition, to outsource more jobs, to load up on more risks and hide behind taxpayer guarantees, to sell more mortgages and credit cards that cheated people. In short, to do whatever juiced short term profits even if it came at the expense of working families.

If that wasn’t entirely new, what came later was, in a meditation on her mother being forced to go to work when her father lost his job. She wrote about it in her book and I’ve seen her tell the broad outlines of the story, but she came to it with new power on Wednesday:

I remember the day my mother, scared to death and crying the whole time, pulled her best dress out of the closet, put on her high heels and walked to the Sears to get a minimum-wage job. Unlike today, a minimum-wage job back then paid enough to support a family of three. That minimum-wage job saved our home — and saved our family. My daddy ended up as a maintenance man, and my mom kept working at Sears. I made it through a commuter college that cost $50 a semester and I ended up in the United States Senate.

Sure, I worked hard, but I grew up in an America that invested in kids like me, an America that built opportunities for kids to compete in a changing world, an America where a janitor’s kid could become a United States senator. I believe in that America.

The crowd rose cheering. I saw a young black woman and a gray-maned white man wiping away tears. It was the first time I thought that maybe, if Warren won for president, she could actually win. But I’m not going there now.


Presidential politics were refreshingly absent from most of the day’s agenda. In a closing panel moderated by Columbia’s (and MSNBC’s) Dorian Warren (no relation to the senator), we saw the power of the disparate raising wages movement on display. Panelists ranged from Colby Harris, an inspiring Walmart employee and organizer fired for taking place in a one-day strike for higher wages, to Boston Mayor Marty Walsh (who got the loudest cheers when he showed his Laborers Union card and announced his dues were paid up).

It was then that I realized though I’d come to “Raising Wages” for new ideas, I was leaving with new appreciation for an old one: the single best way to raise wages is collective bargaining. When Dorian Warren asked the panel for one truly transformative idea, the Center for American Progress’s Neera Tanden didn’t hesitate: “The best way to raise wages? Collective bargaining. It’s the one tried and true method, but while wages are stagnating, unions are under assault.”

Recent clashes between the police and police reformers got me thinking about the collective PTSD many of us suffered after the crime and chaos of the 1970s. I realized at Raising Wages there’s a similar disorder when it comes to unions. The economic unraveling that began in the 1970s was in some ways as scary as the crime, riots and urban unrest that made many Americans more conservative in those years. Once respected partners with business in building American prosperity (and resented for that, frankly, by some labor radicals), unions became the scapegoat for the nation’s economic decline in the 1970s. That’s what Raising Wages is also fighting, and it’s worth thinking more about it.

The menace of inflation, in particular, gave corporate America the pretext to attack unions under the guise of public interest. Rising prices were the result of higher wages driven by the nation’s commitment “to full employment and maximum production,” Business Week wrote in 1974.  Fortune was worse: “Organized labor has now become a destabilizing and dislocating force—made more unmanageable by large political influence.”

Of course unions didn’t help themselves with corruption scandals, or by under-serving the increasingly non-white and female labor force. Those old tensions were evident at Raising Wages, when Wisconsin Jobs Now’s Jennifer Epps-Addison noted that many African Americans are left cold by labor’s demand to restore the middle class, because they “never made it to the middle class.” Union power built the broad white middle class, but just when it was about to try to expand its promise to others, a shaky economy and an economic backlash blunted its power.

Any new movement must remember, and educate others about, the concerted effort on the right to trash unions that emerged in the 70s. Of course higher wages weren’t the main reason prices climbed:  by 1973, working-class male wages started to stagnate, then fall. That also happened to be the year a brand-new business lobby emerged. The Business Roundtable assembled corporate CEOs behind a grander political vision than the one pursued by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce (though the Chamber doubled its membership in the 70, too.) Ronald Reagan’s Labor Department worked overtime to dismantle the gains of the 50s and 60s. In the mid-1970s, the NLRB ruled for businesses roughly one third of the time; by the early 1980s, that jumped to nearly three-       quarters. It was a class war, all right, but only one side joined the battle.

The right still gets it – witness the Koch Brothers’ support for Gov. Scott Walker’s war on labor. Yet the left isn’t always equally energetic in defending unions and union rights. Declining wages are a problem in search of a solution that already exists: strengthening the ability of workers to organize and bargain collectively. The Raising Wages summit was perhaps best understood as an attempt to remind fractious progressives of that truth.

Trumka closed the proceedings by announcing that the AFL-CIO would sponsor similar summits in the first four primary states – Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina – and organize in greater depth in seven cities: St. Louis, Columbus, Minneapolis, Atlanta, Philadelphia, San Diego and Metro Washington D.C. That city focus recognizes that Republicans control Congress and most statehouses, but Democrats run the cities, and mayors have taken the lead on everything from minimum wage and living wage laws to paid sick days and family leave. It also lets unions and other progressives reach people literally where they live, and to personalize politics, at a time when corporations, political campaigns and even social media often target us individually and yet impersonally, as tiny little caucuses of one.

I’m not sure what happens next. I’ve been to a lot of summits; progressives know how to do that. (#WeSummitHard. #Nobodysummitsbetterthanus.) But the diversity of ideas, and people, wrapping their minds and creativity around bigger ideas can’t be a bad thing. I think progressives will be stronger for it in 2016, no matter who runs for president.

By Joan Walsh