Raising Wages Summit Instills Confidence, Determination


February 2015


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The AFL-CIO sponsored a National Summit on Raising Wages at Gallaudet University on Jan. 7, and the event was filled with passionate speakers from all walks of life. From Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Massachusetts), AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka and United States Labor Secretary Thomas Perez, to actress Piper Perabo and small-business owner David Borris, everyone had a unique viewpoint on what raising wages would mean for America’s working families.


Representatives from SIU headquarters attended the summit in Washington, D.C., as did officials from the AFL-CIO’s Maritime Trades Department.


MaryBe McMillan, secretary-treasurer of the North Carolina AFL-CIO, took the stage first. She spoke about the need to raise the minimum wage, and the larger impact such a move would have on the economy as a whole.


“If working folks got their fair share, our economy would work for everyone,” McMillan said, expressing what would be a recurring theme throughout the gathering. “It’s about shifting the debate. Instead of asking how much it will cost to pay workers more, we should be asking how much it will cost if we don’t.”


After McMillan left the podium, two workers shared their personal stories to illustrate how raising wages would affect the average employee. They were followed by Secretary of Labor Perez, who gave a rousing speech to the hundreds assembled.


“We talk data and all that, but this is about real people and the struggles that you’re going through. This is about who we are as Americans,” Perez said, energized by the previous speakers.


He continued, acknowledging the AFL-CIO (to which the SIU is affiliated) for the hard work in putting together the summit, as well as the federation’s continued efforts to boost working families. “I come here to say thank you. Thank you to Rich, thank you to all of our friends at the AFL-CIO. You have been at the tip of the spear, and the labor movement continues to give a voice [to the worker].”


Perez added, “We’re moving in the right direction, but today is about the unfinished business of this recovery, and that is to make sure that this recovery results in shared prosperity. We all succeed when we all succeed, but we all succeed only when we all succeed.”


After two more worker testimonies, McMillan introduced Sen. Warren, who thanked the AFLCIO officers in attendance for their leadership and friendship. She talked about the burden of young Americans, shouldering enormous student debts and struggling to make ends meet.


“Today’s young adults may be the first generation in American history to do worse than their parents did,” she said.


The senator then spoke about the damage done to middle- and lower-class families over the past 30 years: “The trickle-down experiment that began in the Reagan years failed America’s middle class. Sure, the rich are doing great. Giant corporations are doing great. Lobbyists are doing great. But we need an economy where everyone else has a shot to do great.”


Warren shared a personal anecdote that reflected her history with the struggles of workers.


“This is personal for me,” she stated. “When I was 12, my three big brothers were all off in the military. My mom was 50 years old, a stay-at-home mom, and my daddy had a heart attack. It turned our little family upside down. The bills piled up, we lost the family station wagon. We came about that close to losing our home. And I remember that day that my mother, scared, crying, pulled her best dress out of the closet. She put it on, put on her high heels, and walked to Sears to get a minimum wage job. That minimum wage job was enough, back then, to support a family of three. And that minimum wage job meant that we saved our home and saved our family.”


She concluded, to thunderous applause, “My daddy ended up as a maintenance man, my mom kept working at Sears. I graduated from a commuter college that cost $50 a semester. And I ended up in the United States Senate.”


Warren was followed by a roundtabletype discussion with a diverse makeup of participants including Perabo, a member of the SAG-AFTRA; Borris, owner of Hel’s Kitchen Catering; Dorian Warren, associate professor of political science and international public affairs at Columbia University; Neera Tanden, president of the Center for American Progress; Jennifer Epps-Addison, executive director of Wisconsin Jobs Now; Colby Harris, representing the pro-worker group OUR Walmart; The Honorable Marty Walsh, mayor of Boston; Angie Wei, chief of staff of the California Labor Federation; and Michael Cantrell, president of United Auto Workers Local 42 in Chattanooga, Tennessee. As a group, the panel shared personal triumphs and struggles that they have faced as a result of unionizing or otherwise fighting for worker’s rights.


To close out the presentations, Trumka rallied the crowd. After thanking the speakers and panelists, he asked those in attendance and watching the live stream a question.


“For office-holders and candidates, it comes down to a very, very basic question: Are you satisfied? Are you satisfied with an America where the vast majority works harder and harder for less and less? Or do you propose to build an America where we, the people, share in the wealth we create? This is the single standard by which we will judge leadership in the years to come.”


He went on to talk about uniting workers: “We have to organize around a common purpose. And that’s what raising wages is all about. This summit is more than raising wages, though. It’s about what wages represent.”


He also announced the plan that would carry the spirit of the summit forward into action.


“At the end of this marvelous day, our challenges are pretty clear,” Trumka stated. “We’ve come together in a collective voice, and we’re ready to go to work. And in that spirit, I am announcing that the AFL-CIO is launching an ambitious Raising Wages Call to Action.”


He concluded with a sentiment shared by all in attendance: “As we bring this summit to a close, let’s remember that raising wages is not a hobby. It’s our mission. This is a beginning, not an ending, so let’s make it a beginning that all of America will feel the impact of.”


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