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D.C. Working Families coalition launches, targets minimum wage hike

Our D.C., seen at a February 2012 rally, is part of the new Working Families coalition. (Bill O’Leary – The Washington Post)
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Updated 1:15 p.m. to correct that Green, not Michael, was involved with Working Families in Connecticut.

A new coalition of labor unions and other progressive-minded activist groups is launching this week, promising to move elected officials toward a significant minimum wage hike and comprehensive campaign finance reforms.

D.C. Working Families is an offshoot of a national Working Families group that has seen success 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 an across-the-board hike in the city’s $8.25 minimum wage.

The group includes some the city’s most 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 non-labor groups including Jews United for Justice and Our D.C., who were deeply involved in the fight for the large-retailer wage bill, and clergy leaders.

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 D.C. Working Families 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. … I just feel like the city has moved away from hearing the people’s voice.”

The group has hired a full-time D.C. director, Delvone Michael, a veteran organizer who was recently active with Our D.C. He said the new D.C. coalition expects to get involved in the upcoming 2014 election campaign very quickly, 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.

Jon Green, the national deputy director for Working Families, said the group has had success in identifying candidates who are strong on their issues, then “elevating” their profiles in races against more establishment-minded opponents. “We’ve been finding really strong progressive, passionate candidates and elevating those folks so those people are seen as strong viable strong contenders,” he said.

Green previously helped lead the Working Families efforts in Connecticut, where the group helped pass legislation guaranteeing paid sick days for workers.

Both Green and Michael said the defeat of the large-retailer bill and the inability of the council to move forward on serious campaign finance reforms — including proposals to create a public financing system — show that District politicians too often pay lip service to progressive politics but don’t actually legislate that way.

“Progressives have been ignored for far too long,” Michael said. “It’s time to band together.”