The Occupy movement may be able to forge a powerful alliance with millions of working men and women around a national call to raise the minimum wage to $10 an hour. The drive to establish new encampments, while important, is going to be long and difficult. The ongoing efforts to stand up to the foreclosure and mortgage crisis, the marches to hold Wall Street accountable, the protests against stop-and-frisk policies in New York City or police brutality in Oakland, while vital, do not draw the numbers into the streets across the country needed to loosen the grip of the corporate state.
Some 70 percent of the public supports raising the minimum wage. This is an issue that resonates across political, ethnic, religious and cultural lines. It exposes the vast disparities in wealth and the gross inequalities imposed by our corporate oligarchy. The political elite during this election year, which needs to toss a few scraps to the voting public, might be pressured to respond. The two leading Republican candidates, Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum, say they support the minimum wage (although only Romney has called for indexing the minimum wage). Barack Obama promised during his 2008 election campaign to press to raise the minimum wage to $9.50 by 2011, a promise that, like many others, he has ignored. But the ground is fertile.
“The 24-hour encampments, largely on public property, broke through,” Ralph Nader told me when we spoke of the Occupy movement a few days ago. “These encampments jolted the consciousness of the nation. But people began asking after a number of weeks what’s next. Once the movement lost the encampments it did not have a second-strike readiness, which should be the raising of the minimum wage to $10 an hour.”
The federal minimum wage of $7.25, adjusted for inflation, is $2.75 lower than it was in 1968 when worker productivity was about half of what it is today. There has been a steady decline in real wages for low-income workers. Meanwhile, corporations such as Walmart and McDonald’s, whose workforce earns the minimum wage or slightly above it, have enjoyed massive profits. Executive salaries, along with prices, have soared even as worker salaries have stagnated or declined. But the call to raise the minimum wage is not only a matter of economic justice. The infusion of tens of billions of dollars into the hands of the working class would increase tax revenue, open up new jobs and lift consumer spending.
There are numerous groups, including the AFL-CIO, whose leaders dutifully pay lip service to raising the minimum wage but have refused to mobilize to fight for it. Rank-and-file workers, once they had a place and a movement willing to agitate on their behalf, would shame union bosses into joining them. There are 535 congressional offices scattered throughout the country. These congressional offices, Nader suggests, could provide the focal point for sustained local protests.
“You could get leading think tanks, like the Economic Policy Institute, the AFL-CIO, member unions, especially unions like the California Nurses Association, which has been very aggressive on this, and a bevy of academics such as Dean Baker and professor Robert Pollin, along with groups such as the NAACP and La Raza, to back this,” Nader said. “There is potential for huge synergy. But it needs the jolt that can only come from the Occupy movement.”
“The Occupy movement arose by embracing a rejectionist attitude toward politics, but in the end that is lethal,” Nader said. “It is a form of ideological immolation. If they won’t turn on politics, politics will continue to turn on them. Politics means the power of government—local, state and national—and the ability of corporations to control departments and agencies and turn government against its own people. Not engaging in politics might have been a good preliminary tactic to gain credibility so they could avoid being tagged with some ‘-ism’ or some party, but it has worn out its purpose. The movement needs to become a champion for millions of low-income workers. This does not mean the Occupy movement should support a political party. It means it should go after both parties. It is only by going after the two main political parties that raising the minimum wage will get through Congress.”
Nader believes that the call to raise the minimum wage has the potential to divide the Republican Party, which has not been split on any major issue in Congress since Obama took office. He says that the economic suffering of low-income Americans is so severe that some Republican candidates running for office would be loath to ignore a groundswell in their districts calling for an increase in the minimum wage. But the pressure has to be exerted between now and the November elections. Once the elections are concluded, nothing will be passed that is not orchestrated, funded and authored by corporate lobbyists.
Past campaigns to raise the minimum wage have proved very popular. ACORN, in 2004, organized a statewide referendum in Florida to raise the minimum wage by a dollar. Once the proposal was on the ballot, corporate forces launched a lavishly funded assault against the initiative. The battle to defeat the measure was spearheaded by fast food corporations such as McDonald’s and Burger King as well as chain stores such as Walmart and Kmart. There was no money to fund ads to counter the corporate propaganda or support the proposal. The initiative, despite the public relations onslaught, won by 71 percent. To placate his corporate backers, the Democratic presidential candidate, John Kerry, refused to support the ballot initiative although he desperately needed Florida to win the election.
“How much political courage does it take to stand up for guys making $7.25 an hour while the head of Walmart is making $11,000 an hour?” Nader asked. “What medieval period had that kind of wealth disparity?”
“This campaign, if successful, would make the Occupy movement the chief movement in the country,” Nader said. “It would be a movement that got something done. It could build on this.”
“The end of the encampments could be an unintended blessing,” Nader went on. “The movement no longer has to deal with daily housekeeping, sanitation, the occasional fights and bickering and the poor and homeless who were urged to go there by police. It can develop a laser-beam focus on the first stage of the recovery of the American worker.”
“To be able to spearhead a coalition that includes the AFL-CIO, minority groups and local community groups will show that the movement can leverage power,” Nader said. “It has not shown this so far. The most accessible bastion of corporate power, the most sensitive of the three branches of government, is the legislature, and not just Congress, but state legislatures. This is a winnable issue. It fulfills the 99 percent motto. And the movement can be very effective because it has developed a unique ability to carry out daily demonstrations. If the movement can get the minimum wage raised it will gain enormous power. Who has gotten anything on the progressive agenda through Congress in the last few years? A victory would permit the Occupy movement to fill this power vacuum. Once you win a battle in Congress you produce a penumbra of power. This penumbra stops bad things from happening. It curtails the arrogance of the Republican Party. It empowers new and fresh leadership.”