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Labor’s Hi-Tech/Lo Tech Election Campaign

Shorter post tonight. The family is out (a good thing when there's important blogging to be done), but trick-or-treaters aren't giving me a free moment. Bless their sugary little hearts.

And speaking of scary things, we have an election coming up. With just a week left, Karl Rove and his buddies are hunkered down behind the White House fence are putting all of their marbles in the much vaunted Republican turnout machine that allegedly handed the 2004 election to George Bush.

Meanwhile, back on the Democratic side, all eyes are on labor, whose effective Get Out The Vote program of the past several elections served as a model for the current Republican program. But I'm not going to write about GOTV. It's exciting and necessary to do, but boring to read about.

Instead I'm gong to write about one of the best things the stodgy, conservative old AFL-CIO has done in this campaign — to make good use of YouTube videos featuring two real Transport Workers Union member, Joe and Jim, discussing the Bush administration’s disastrous impact on working families (up top), and a second one talking about their outrage that we're spending $6 billion a month in Iraq while 47 million Americans back home have no health insurance. And then there's this shorter one that takes down Rick Santorum . Check them out. After listening to non-stop trash political commercials (I'm getting both Maryland and Virginia), these are like a refreshing drink of cold water on a humid Washington summer day.

Meanwhile, to return the favor, Labor has also borrowed an idea from Karl Rove. Get something up on the ballot that will drive more sympathetic people to the polls. Where the Republicans successfully used same sex marriage to fire up troops in 2004, labor is using minimum wage initiatives to encourage low-wage workers to come to the polls. 

After Congress failed to increase the minimum wage for the 10th year in a row, labor is pushing minimum wage initiatives in the key battleground states of Arizona, Colorado, Missouri, Montana, Nevada and Ohio. All have Senatorial campaigns except for Colorado. All of the minimum wage initiatives are inflation adjusted, meaning that the minimum wage will rise with the inflation rate. Had the federal minimum wage rate been inflation adjusted after the last raise in 1997, the current wage would be $6.50 an hour instead of the current $5.50 an hour. Ten years after Congress approved the last raise, the federal minimum now buys less than it did in 1951. Factoring in increases in the cost of living, the minimum wage is now at its lowest value in 51 years. Meanwhile, in the ten years that Congress has not voted to raise the minimum wage, they have managed to vote three times to increase their own pay by $34,900

Twenty-three states now have minimum wages above the national level. In support of those campaigns, the AFL-CIO and ACORN have put together a "video blog" or Vlog called 7 Days @ Minimum Wage, hosted by actor and comedienne Roseanne Barr and featuring a number of workers describing what it's like to work at minimum wage.

If Mallory McCarty wins a pay raise from her current minimum wage of $5.15 an hour to the $6.85 an hour as called for in a Nov. 7 Ohio ballot initiative, she says she’d finally have some extra money to set aside to learn new skills:

I either hang clothes, cashier, put clothes up or I am a sorter….You stand all day and I get a 45-minute break.

But all that hard work barely covers McCarty’s basic living costs:

I pay $200 every two weeks for rent and food, gas, lights and I have a phone bill…and I have to buy two bus passes to get to work….I have to watch what I spend every check. I’m living pay by pay.

Rev. Paul Sherry, "campaign coordinator" for Let Justice Roll, an alliance of some 80 mostly religious organizations, in addition to the AFL-CIO, notes that although their are religious reasons to work for justice, there are also basic economic reasons :

 "A job should keep you out of poverty, not keep you in it," Sherry says.

Today, working 40 hours per week, 52 weeks a year at a minimum-wage job provides an annual income of $10,712, which is about $6,000 below the official poverty level for a family of three.

Unions in Arizona are using the issue not just to raise workers' wages, but also to defeat Republican Senator John Kyl:

Most voters, that is, except maybe Arizona Republican Sen. Jon Kyl. He opposed raising the federal minimum wage 15 times, while voting for his own salary increase—congressional pay has jumped by more than $30,000 a year since Congress last raised the federal minimum wage. Earlier this month, union activists delivered to Kyl’s office a copy of Prop. 202, the initiative to raise the minimum wage, because he refused to take a stand on the issue—saying he hadn’t read it.

The right, of course, accuses labor and the Democrats of cynically manipulating poor people:

In Montana, Brad Griffin, chairman of the Coalition Against Continual Price Increases, says that politics appears to be central to the wage hike initiatives. The coalition includes business leaders, small businesses, restaurant owners and others.

Griffin accuses wage hike proponents of "a cynical use of the initiative process for their own political agenda, to help turn the tide in Congress."

"It's interesting that in almost every state where it's on the ballot, there's a tight Senate race, so it appears the proponents of it are not so much concerned with helping the working poor, but rather with helping unseat the vulnerable Republican senators by driving up the turnout," he said.

Well, yeah, Brad, but if we had more Democratsin Congress, we wouldn't need all of these initiatives. That's what happens when democracy starts to break down — people start taking things in their own hands. As AFL-CIO Organizing Director Stewart Acuff write in the Huffington Post

Twenty-two states and the District of Columbia have already passed minimum wage rates above the federal minimum, 18 of them and the District since the 2004 federal election. Fifty-eight percent of the national population now lives in states that have minimum wages higher than the federal level – and unlikely states like North Carolina and Arkansas enacted higher minimum wage standards for the first time.

This revolution in the states confirms that Americans understand no one can live on anything close to $5.15 an hour. In a recent survey by the Pew Foundation, 88 percent of voters nationwide say they support raising the minimum wage — leading us to ask Republican members of Congress who blocked the raise and are desperately seeking more votes on November 7th, "What were you thinking?"


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Jordan Barab

Jordan Barab