Last week workers at Walmart—our nation’s largest private sector employer—used collective action to win a raise for more than 500,000 of their co-workers. The fact that workers forced Walmart to raise wages shows that America has reached a turning point. Working people are sending a clear message to our economic elites: “We deserve more.” We refuse to just accept a society where the wages of the top 10% rise and the bottom 90% fall, where two families—the Kochs and the Waltons—have more wealth than almost half the country combined. Today we commit both to our goal and our plan of action.
Raising wages is about fighting inequality by raising all workers’ wages, and it’s about workers’ right to organize and bargain with our employers to raise our wages without fear of reprisal or dismissal. But Raising Wages is really about much more than that if we are to build an economy centered on improving the lives of the people who do the work. Creating a raising wages society requires a comprehensive program of action, each part of which is grounded in our collective voice. It begins with re-establishing work – and workers – at the center of the American economy.
In a Raising Wages society, Wall Street will not write the rules of the economy. From offshoring jobs to corporate-based trade deals and risky investment schemes, Wall Street and the wealthiest 1% — and even more the wealthiest 0.01% — have shaped our economy for generations. Under pressure from Wall Street, employers have failed to uphold the promises they made to workers regarding retirement benefits. Far too many employers have failed to pay into retirement funds to keep the funds solvent. Millions of workers who exchanged wage increases over the years for the simple promise of retirement security are now finding that security in jeopardy. But it does not have to be this way.
Indeed it cannot continue to be this way because an economy built on wage suppression and radical inequality does not work. This type of economy produces weak growth, financial bubbles and financial crises, and political instability. And there is another choice—a choice that will produce prosperity.
We can build a full-employment economy where workers’ wages rise as we create more wealth. We can ensure that the public investments we must make—from education to infrastructure – are well funded and shared equally. And that the bookends of the raising wages economy – childcare and secure retirement – are guaranteed for all.
Raising wages means better lives and opportunity for all. That has to mean addressing racial injustice and economic exclusion. Raising wages means addressing social and economic problems with infrastructures and resources rather than with criminalization and mass incarceration. Justice at work and justice in our communities are intertwined and both must advance for either to grow.
Collectively, these elements will build the final, critical element: political accountability. Raising Wages is the workers’ common voice, and, when unified, will establish a standard of accountability that no political leader can evade.
But all this will only happen if we make it happen. If we tell the truth about what has happened to our economy. If we take on the fights that will determine whether wages in America continue to decline. If we bring those fights to the streets of our communities. And if, in the end, we hold those who seek elected office in our country—accountable for the only question that matters: Are you for an economy where workers’ income rises as we produce more wealth? Or are you building an economy where those who do the work must live on the crumbs left over from the meals they have made but others have eaten?
Telling the Truth
Every working person needs to know the facts. The AFL-CIO has launched Common Sense Economics to get these facts into the hands of working people.
- Wages for the bottom 70% have been flat since the late 1970s, while almost all the gains from the increasing productivity of our workforce have flowed to the top 10%.
- Wage stagnation is not the inevitable outcome of immutable economic forces. Wage stagnation is the result of wealthy and powerful people, big corporations and Wall Street designing a global economy where wages stay low.
The rules are rigged because they rigged the rules.
But it hasn’t always been this way, and it doesn’t have to be this way. At the national, state and local levels we can bring back government that enforces rules that provide for an economy where wages grow and where the wealth we produce is shared fairly; that protects workers; and that favors democracy in the workplace.
And we – the labor movement, our allies and each of us as individuals – will speak about these truths, about the fights we take on, about the victories and gains we achieve – in the same way, using a common Raising Wages narrative. Whether we are negotiating for a pay increase at the bargaining table or mobilizing for a paid sick leave ordinance in city hall, we must recognize that each of these battles is part of one overall Raising Wages campaign – and we must all think and speak about them in the same way.
Fighting the Fight
In the next few months, the labor movement will fight five big fights over the basic structure of our economy—over whether we live in a low-wage or a Raising Wages society.
- We will fight to defend and expand our rights at work—the right to organize, the right to a living wage, the right to overtime, the right to equal pay. And millions of us will bargain in thousands of workplaces across this country to raise our wages. In cities across the country we will pass paid sick day and fair scheduling legislation. And we will mobilize support for federal legislation that strengthens protections for workers who speak out and take action with their co-workers to improve their wages and working conditions and brings remedies for workers who face retaliation for exercising their rights in line with other workplace laws. More and bigger changes are needed to fix our broken labor law system and restore workers’ freedom of association, but strengthening remedies for workers is an important and immediate first step. At the federal level, we will fight to raise wages for the government’s own workforce. The federal government is the nation’s largest employer and its actions set a standard for other public and private employers.
- We will fight for economic policies that put full employment and wages that rise with productivity ahead of Wall Street profits.We will fight for increased federal investment to fix our crumbling infrastructure, which will create jobs and increase productivity, all of which will raise wages.We will fight against financialization in all its forms – from tax breaks for corporations that outsource jobs to student debt peonage – and we will fight for taxing financial speculation and expanding Social Security.
- We will stop Fast Track and fight any trade policies or trade deals that undermine our democracy and favor multinational corporations over working people in the U.S. and around the world.
- We will fight against the marginalization of any of us—from mass incarceration to the scandal of 12 million undocumented immigrants without rights and without a path to citizenship. When some of us have no bargaining power, all of us lose.
- We will fight in the states to keep right wing politicians, acting on behalf of their corporate and Wall Street patrons, from rolling back fundamental economic and social protections that we have won over many decades of struggle.
All of these fights are about policy decisions that together make up the structure of an economy built on wage stagnation. They are not separate fights. They are one fight, and that fight is about Raising Wages.
Raising Wages in Our Communities
Raising Wages has to happen in the places where we live and work. In the weeks and months to come, working people in 10 of America’s major metropolitan areas are going to be putting the pieces together to turn these cities into Raising Wages communities.
Over the past year, the AFL-CIO and numerous affiliated unions already have launched Raising Wages initiatives with local unions and coalition partners in several southern cities (Dallas, Houston, Atlanta and Miami) and now have begun to undertake initiatives in additional cities: – St. Louis, Philadelphia, Columbus, San Diego, Minneapolis/St. Paul and Washington/Baltimore.
We call on state and local bodies in these cities, union affiliates, community partners, and progressive allies to identify the current and potential Raising Wages campaign opportunities in organizing, bargaining, legislation, and politics – and to treat these opportunities as interconnected components of a single nation-wide initiative to Raise Wages – and to do so using a common narrative.
We pledge to collaborate with and assist each other in carrying out these Raising Wages campaigns.
The AFL-CIO will work with our state and local bodies, our union affiliates, community partners and progressive allies in these cities to bring new energy, to help pool resources and to offer coordination among coalition partners in the Raising Wages campaigns they undertake – and to help spread the truth that a high-wage community is a better community to live in. Together we can make it happen.
Holding Leaders Accountable
Accountability means we expect policymakers and candidates to take concrete action to build a Raising Wages economy. And we demand they stop changing the subject away from economic inequality and wage stagnation and stop proposing Band-Aids that do not really solve the problem. These are the standards by which leadership will be judged.
Accountability starts with presidential politics. In January, we held a national summit on Raising Wages. Between now and the end of 2015, the AFL-CIO and our state partners will hold Raising Wages summits in the first four presidential primary states: Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada, and South Carolina. The first will be in Iowa this spring. Each summit will bring together diverse voices to discuss how we can implement a comprehensive agenda to increase workers’ bargaining power, raise wages and living standards for the vast majority of workers, and hold policymakers accountable. This has to be a conversation about every aspect of leadership—policies, political strategies, and staffing choices.
But accountability does not stop there. As we go into Raising Wages fights on Fast Track, on the right to organize and bargain, on the power of Wall Street—accountability on the question of Raising Wages must be our watch word at every level of the labor movement and we must demand it at every level of government—from town councils to state legislatures to the halls of Congress. And Raising Wages does not mean: will you throw us crumbs from the table? It means: will you take on the fight to ensure that those who create the wealth get to share in it?
Why We Must Win
America is a country built on the idea that hard work should be rewarded. The labor movement’s contribution was to show that if you want hard work to be rewarded, people have to come together to make it so through collective action and solidarity. This is and always has been the only effective path towards social and economic justice in America.
The most important thing now is to raise our expectations and demand more. We know things do not have to be the way they are. We know who is responsible for the theft of our wages. We know the work we do has dignity and value, and we deserve to be paid more for doing it. We deserve to share in the wealth we all create together. We deserve more from our economic and political elites. We deserve a better and more functional democracy. We must and we will Raise Wages.