May Day - Yesterday, Senate Republicans shut down a proposal to raise the minimum wage to $10.10 per hour. A recent poll put popular support for the increase at 72%. Not incidentally, the Senate defeat coincided with the National Restaurant Association’s national lobby day. Known among restaurant workers as “the other NRA” for its political clout in Washington, the NRA is among the leading forces opposing efforts to raise the minimum wage currently underway in cities and states around the country, as well as in Congress.
This is a David v. Goliath contest, with the (other) NRA representing industry giants such as McDonalds, Taco Bell, and Starbucks. Calling out the NRA’s undue influence over workers, the economy, and Congress, earlier this a coalition of economic justice groups published a full-page ad in the New York Times challenging members of Congress to stop taking NRA campaign contributions. The contest between everyday working people and industry power over questions of basic economic fairness is intensifying in communities across the country. And the corporate is taking notice.
Groups representing low-wage workers—including domestic and agricultural laborers excluded from New Deal-era reforms—are building power. We’ve seen domestic workers Bill of Rights legislation pass in New York and California; the recovery of millions of dollars in wages stolen from low-income workers; powerful organizing in fast-food restaurants; momentum toward a $15 minimum wage; and paid sick-days legislation in states around the country.
This resurgence of low-wage worker organizing—which builds on decades of effort to win living-wage standards—is a hopeful sign in an economy otherwise characterized by falling wages, precarious job security, and a massive expansion of corporate power over our workplaces, politics, and society. As might be expected, the Chamber of Commerce and other industry groups that have worked to decimate private and public sector unions are now determined to prevent the rise of new worker organizations that dare to challenge their dominance.
Last November, a group of demonstrators with the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) were out in the streets of Washington, D.C. calling on the Wendy’s chain of fast food restaurant to sign a “fair food agreement.” The measure earns Florida farmworkers an extra penny per pound of tomatoes. Industry giants like Burger King and Walmart have signed on, and those pennies have added up to more than $10 million passed on to workers over two years.
The D.C. action drew more than supporters, however. Among the demonstrators appeared a young man, unknown to CIW, wearing an Obama cap and brandishing the red flag of the former Soviet Union, with its distinctive hammer and sickle. He refused organizers’ requests to put the flag away and posed among CIW supporters for a man with camera lurking nearby.
Fortunately, quick-thinking CIW activists foiled the apparent redbaiting stunt, snapping their own picture of the photographer – who turned out ot be none other than Ryan Williams of Worker Center Watch—a hatchet-job PR project funded by The Chamber of Commerce. The incident evokes the notorious right-wing smear tactics used against ACORN and Planned Parenthood. The intensifying PR attacks on new worker organizations are one prong of an evolving industry campaign to attack the low-wage worker field.
The same month as the Soviet flag stunt, the national Chamber of Commerce’s “workforce freedom initiative” issued a 50-page report arguing that worker centers are simply unions by another name, and suggesting they should be brought under the same union regulations that ban secondary boycotts and restrict foundation funding. That same line was used at a September Congressional Subcommittee hearing, championed by the National Restaurant Association. The Chamber is promoting a road show to educate local chapters about the so-called “ominous threat” of new worker organizations.
Meanwhile, right-wing policy groups like the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) are pushing state-level “pre-emption” bills that ban improvements to sick leave and other common-sense public policies. The National Restaurant Association is a key player in these policy fights, lobbying to deny states the right to pass nutrition labeling requirement and fighting women’s equality by opposing the Paycheck Fairness Act, the Pregnancy Discrimination Act, and the Family Medical Leave Act.
The Chamber’s new focus on worker centers and other grassroots economic justice groups is a significant threat given industry’s history of expending massive resources to bring down worker organizations. A new report from the United Workers Congress finds that “corporate forces are building a dark money infrastructure of lobby groups and public relations firms to weaken public support for worker centers” and distract from the fundamental problem of growing economic inequality.
At PRA, we’re closely following the mounting corporate attacks on the low-wage organizing sector. Watch this space.