New coalition in D.C. seeks increase in minimum wage, campaign finance reform

October 30, 2013

A new coalition of labor unions and other liberal groups has launched in the District, promising to move elected officials toward a significant increase in the minimum wage and comprehensive campaign finance reforms.

D.C. Working Families is an offshoot of a national group that has succeeded promoting social-justice issues in New York, Connecticut and Oregon. The District launch comes after a push to require a “living wage” for employees of large retailers narrowly failed and as local officials ponder a broader increase in the city’s $8.25-an-hour minimum wage.

The group includes some the city’s largest and most progressive labor groups: Local 25 of UNITE HERE, the hotel workers’ union; locals 32BJ and 1199 of the Service Employees International Union; and Local 657 of the Laborers’ International Union of North America. Also involved are clergy leaders and non-labor groups including Jews United for Justice and Our DC, which were heavily involved in the fight for the wage bill that would have affected large retailers.

The Rev. George Gilbert Jr., pastor of Holy Trinity United Baptist Church in Deanwood and the leader of D.C. Jobs or Else, an employment justice group, said the coalition will work to “make sure the poor and the middle class have a level playing ground.”

“We represent and serve a lot of people who feel like they don’t have a voice any more in the city,” Gilbert said. “They feel like big business is basically calling the shots and motivating the politicians to make their decisions.”

 

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The group has hired a full-time D.C. director, Delvone Michael, a veteran organizer who was recently active with Our DC.

Michael said the new coalition expects to quickly get involved in the 2014 election campaign, advocating for progressive issues but also recruiting and promoting “real progressive” candidates. “We think the folks in the Wilson Building have done some good things over the years, but we think they could do a little bit better,” he said.

The organizers said the defeat of the large-retailer bill and the inability of the council to move forward on serious campaign finance changes — including proposals to create a public financing system — show that the District’s overwhelmingly Democratic politicians pay lip service to progressive politics but don’t always legislate that way.

John Boardman, the executive secretary-treasurer for the local UNITE HERE group, said the Working Families effort — while not a full-blown political party, as it is in some states — will work to inform residents that Democrats in the city, “while leaning in the right direction,” are “not as progressive as necessary.”

“It’s not an abandonment of the Democratic Party,” he said. “It is a platform for a more concise, purer representation, if you will, of progressive ideas.”

One immediate push, Boardman said, will be to ensure that the minimum wage rates considered by lawmakers — which have ranged from $9.25 to $12.50 an hour — remain as high as possible. “The numbers that people are putting out there are low,” he said. “I don’t know how anyone can expect anyone to live on $12.50.”

But he said he recognizes that the group will have to operate within the practical politics” of the debate: “We know what it takes to move something forward.”

Mike DeBonis covers local politics and government for The Washington Post. He also writes a blog and a political analysis column that runs on Fridays.
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