Lessons From the Field: Good Neighbors, Good Wages

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January 30, 2014

Paul Adler, JUFJ

President Obama’s State of the Union this week is breathing life – and hope – into the conversation around raising the minimum wage. And it reminds us how local organizing can lay the groundwork for national economic justice issues. As the president put it: “It is you, our citizens, who make the state of our union strong.”

Consider this: In December, Washington DC and two neighboring counties in Maryland raised their minimum wages at the same time, the first time jurisdictions aligned their strategic efforts across state lines.

The Jewish community was at the heart of this victory, including Jews United for Justice, JUFJ, the DC community organizing group where I work. Jewish organizers applied pressure at key points during the legislative process: organizing congregations, neighborhoods, and friends, giving testimony before city and county councils, collecting petition signatures, and making hundreds of phone calls to elected officials.

In her testimony in favor of raising the minimum wage, JUFJ’s Rachel Metz, for example, spoke of her family’s intergenerational commitment to strong labor laws. Her grandparents, she testified, “were lifelong members of Workmen’s Circle, an organization that functioned as an immigrant aid society … and advocated for decent working conditions and pay.” And in a Labor Day op-ed in the Washington Jewish Week, she described how “synagogues in the DC area are joining other communities of faith from across the state; together almost 50 congregations are raising our prophetic voices to call for action on the minimum wage.”

The Bigger Picture

Across the nation, the push for a livable minimum wage has been gaining traction as part of a broader campaign for economic justice.

In 2013, fast-food and retail workers across the country went on strike, demanding living wages; four states plus the District of Columbia passed laws to raise their minimum wages beginning in 2014; and voters in New Jersey passed a constitutional amendment to raise the minimum wage and index it to future increases in the cost of living. President Obama and the Democratic leadership in Congress have come out in favor of raising the minimum wage to $10.10 in several steps.

We’re already seeing the minimum wage become a key issue in many midterm elections. It’s not surprising, since 76% of Americans support raising the federal minimum wage to $9 an hour, according to a November Gallup poll.

According to Rabbi Elizabeth Richman, rabbi in residence and program director at JUFJ, Jewish texts and tradition can be interpreted as requiring us to advocate for fair wages. “Rambam says that the highest form of tzedakah is to make sure people have self-sustaining jobs,” said Richman. “Rabbi Yonah Gerondi says that employers must treat their poor employees like family members.”

Progressive Jewish organizations across the country are working with partners – from labor, women’s rights, faith-based, economic justice, and immigrant rights groups – to raise wages, including Bend the Arc, the Jewish Labor Committee, Jewish Alliance for Law and Social Action, Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism and, of course, Jews United for Justice.

Local Possibilities

Momentum began building in Washington, DC, for raising wages in early 2013. Last January, DC City Council Chairman Phil Mendelson introduced the Large Retailer Accountability Act (LRAA), which would have required big-box retailers to pay a higher minimum wage. The bill passed the DC Council by a narrow margin, but was vetoed by Mayor Vincent Gray. In response, four council members introduced bills in September 2013 to raise DC’s minimum wage.

Mike Wilson, the lead organizer of the Respect DC coalition, which was behind the LRAA, says that while it was “incredibly disappointing that we weren’t able to override the mayor’s veto [of the LRAA], there was the momentum there, and we knew we couldn’t take our foot off the gas.” Losing the “Walmart bill” had spurred minimum wage supporters on the Council into action: what seemed like defeat was really just a setback.

Meanwhile in Maryland, in August 2013, Montgomery County Councilmember Marc Elrich floated the idea of a $12 minimum wage. When he couldn’t find any co-sponsors, Elrich hatched a plan, ultimately convincing DC Council Chair Phil Mendelson and Prince George’s County Council Chair Andrea Harrison to work together to raise all three municipalities’ minimum wages.

How We Won

In fall 2013, JUFJ members were deeply enmeshed in two campaigns: raising the statewide minimum wage in Maryland, and strengthening DC’s weak 2008 paid sick leave law.

Just as the LRAA was vetoed by Mayor Gray, the Paid Sick Days for All coalition’s bill was introduced to the DC City Council. JUFJ had worked to bring this bill before the council for nearly three years. Once it was clear that the LRAA had failed, supporters shifted their efforts toward raising the minimum wage across the board. JUFJ and our coalition partners quickly joined forces with the organizations pushing for the minimum wage increase. Both the stronger paid sick leave and minimum wage increase bills passed the DC Council, unanimously, on December 17, and were signed by the mayor in early January.

“The biggest thing that JUFJ was able to contribute,” says Respect DC’s Wilson, “was this amazing base of volunteers who were not only knowledgeable about the issues, but able and willing to do a lot of the grunt work of making phone calls and meeting with council members.”

Meanwhile in Maryland, JUFJ kicked off our statewide minimum wage campaign in a sukkah in September, coordinating with Raise Maryland, a coalition of statewide faith, labor and advocacy organizations. Within a couple weeks, the Montgomery County Council unanimously passed a resolution in support of the statewide minimum wage increase.

Councilmember Marc Elrich wasn’t satisfied with merely voicing support for the statewide increase. He introduced a bill to raise the county minimum wage to $11.50. JUFJ members sprung into action, along with our allies, testifying at hearings and calling their representatives. On some days, a different person called a council member’s office every 10 minutes.

Despite efforts by other councilmembers to weaken or sideline Erlich’s bill, on November 26, the bill passed 8-1.

Elrich says JUFJ’s mobilization of constituents was critical to the bill’s passage. “[JUFJ] did a really great job,” he said. “We didn’t have a lot of time; this came together really quickly, and I’m not sure it would have happened otherwise.” In all, 1,186 JUFJ leaders took some form of action in our paid sick days or regional minimum wage campaigns.

While the outcomes were huge, the campaign’s integrated approach was crucial to its success: People of many different socioeconomic backgrounds, races and faiths worked together to make our home a better place for all.

In Montgomery County, CASA de Maryland hosted a press conference with African and Latino immigrants speaking about the near impossibility of surviving on the minimum wage. The Montgomery County chapter of the National Organization for Women hosted a press conference, emphasizing how minimum wage earners are disproportionately women and people of color. And Jews United for Justice was there to speak with the voice of Jewish tradition, values, and history. While few people in the JUFJ community earn minimum wages today, many of us have parents or grandparents who worked long and hard so that we could have a better chance. And all of us share traditions that call on us to create a society in which honorable work earns a decent living. The Jewish community has a huge role to play in today’s fights for a just economy.

These local victories are not ends, but stepping-stones. With each win, workers and their allies gain more power to advocate for true living wages and better working conditions. Similarly, activists around the country can take heart from the success of this diverse coalition. And Jews can see the impact our small but influential community can have in the fight for social justice.

Nathaniel Eisen is a corps member in AVODAH: The Jewish Service Corps and an online organizer at Jews United for Justice. Nathaniel has a BA in philosophy from Stanford University and enjoys geeking out in his political theory reading group.

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