This afternoon, at the end of an energetic news conference re-introducing a bill that would require employers to give workers more advance notice of their schedules, a reporter asked an obvious question: Why do you think this has any more chance of passing a Republican-led Congress this year than it did when you introduced it last year?
Sen. Elizabeth Warren could have brushed it off with a blithely confident statement. Instead, perhaps tired of hearing this kind of thing, she wanted to make a larger point.
"Let me say a word on that," she said, stepping up to the podium. "It is hard. I understand. And our party is not in the majority. But you don’t get what you don’t fight for. And that’s what this is about." Warren warmed to her oratory, which might as well be the Democrats' anthem this term.
"It takes sometimes one try, sometimes it takes four, sometimes it takes six. I don’t know how many tries it will take," she said. "But I know that people in this room and people across the country who need these changes will unite with one voice. We are not going to get change from a bunch of senators and congresspeople just talking to each other. It’s going to happen because enough people are gonna say 'it’s fair, come on!' That’s how we move forward," she said, to cheers from the friendly crowd.
As Congress has been unable to agree on much over the past few years, that's increasingly the progressive model for getting things done: Introduce token federal legislation, while pushing corporations to act on their own to improve practices. That lessens business opposition down the road when new laws are eventually proposed, first on the local level, until it works, finally, in Congress.
That's why the sponsors of the Schedules that Work Act didn't seem shy about admitting that its chances were basically nil this time around.
"This is about changing laws, but this is also about changing practices, calling out the worst actors, insisting that they do better," said Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) "We will win eventually here in Washington, but we will win on the march there, too."
That's how it went with gay rights -- the Employment Non-Discrimination Act had been introduced almost every session since 1994, failing again and again, while companies introduced their own protections for LGBT employees and some states started to require them. Now, after the sweeping shift on gay marriage from the Supreme Court, Democrats are going for a much more ambitious legislative approach that would ban discrimination against gay people everywhere.
And that's certainly how things appear to be working with the minimum wage and paid leave. While bills languish in Congress, mostly not even making it out of committee, big corporations have been raising their minimum wages and introducing paid leave policies on their own, basking briefly in the glow of public approval. States and cities are moving to mandate those changes for everyone else, as well, with a push from unions and advocacy groups.
On stable schedules, the main action is also in localities, while corporations like Wal-Mart and the Gap experiment with tech-savvy ways to give their employees more control over when and how much they work. Ultimately, they may find that a law requiring them to do so isn't so objectionable after all. (It's worth noting that lawmakers also sometimes introduce bills that won't pass simply to curry favor with donors, since they can at least say they tried.)
For Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), it's about pushing a package of reforms that adapt to how the relationships between workers and their employers have evolved.
"The world has changed. For the new people who are growing up, the protections that were once built into the workplace by just the way the workplace worked, by unions, are gone. So we have to change things," Schumer said. "This is not only an important piece of legislation that I’m proud to co-sponsor, but it’s a very important step that we as Democrats who care about the middle class realize that new kinds of protections, new kinds of thinking are needed."
And there are some signs of progress on this one. Last year's bill had only five Senate co-sponsors, while this one has 18 right out of the gate. A bill in the next term might also have a powerful ally in the White House: Hillary Clinton, who called out fair scheduling in her big economic speech earlier this week.