Restaurant worker and Fight for $15 organizer Terrence Wise said between the struggle to increase wages and lawmakers strangling efforts for people to join unions, workers face a broken system.
“Companies like McDonald’s pay us so little, that we have to rely on government assistance just to get by,” Wise said. “That ain’t right. They are making record profits — millions of dollars off the backs of workers like myself.”
During a presidential forum on wages and workers, his summation of the economic plight faced by people in low-wage jobs, many who are people of color, as well as his call for candidates to have concrete plans on how they would solve it received applause that rivaled any received by the candidates.
Hosted by SEIU and the Center for American Progress, the Saturday workers forum heard remarks from U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris, U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren, U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, former U.S. Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julian Castro, former U.S. Rep. Beto O’Rourke and Gov. John Hickenlooper.
Neera Tanden, President of the Center for American Progress Action Fund, said the forum is part of a yearlong effort to hear the candidates pitch their solutions on workers’ rights, economic insecurity and wage issues.
Every candidate who came on stage hit the same talking points — pledges to protect and strengthen unions, fight right-to-work laws, establish $15 an hour as the federal minimum wage, address gaps in Social Security funding, expand health care, and reverse the Trump tax bill.
Castro not only mentioned increasing the wage, but also how his staff starts at $15 an hour and is in the process of unionizing.
While some touched on income equality, Warren returned to a similar refrain of her campaign — address inequality by making billionaires pay their fair share.
“If anyone who has one of the great fortunes, $50 million or above, 2 cents of the $50 millionith and first dollar has to go back in for everybody else and two cents for every dollar over that,” she said, describing her what she has dubbed her “ultra-millionaire tax.”
The tax, she said, would provide enough money to pay for universal college, tackle the student debt crisis and offer universal child care and pre-Kindergarten as well as raise the wages of those who work in those jobs — all issues that play into economic security.
O’Rourke called for re-examining America priorities. “Don’t tell me we don’t have the resources,” he said. “Instead of investing in wars, we should make the investment, why don’t we invest in people and communities.”
Harris highlighted her plan to change the tax code. Under one of her proposals, “if your family is making less than $100,000 a year, you’ll receive up to a $6,000 tax credit,” she said. “You’ll receive up to $500 a month. It will lift up one in two American families, two in three American children and lift up 60 percent of African-American households out of poverty.”
Klobuchar promoted what she calls an “Up-Savings Account.” “About 49 million Americans have Social Security but they don’t have any kind of other retirement,” she said. “If employers aren’t going to have a 401K, at least start putting 50 cents an hour into a retirement account for your workers.”
Hickenlooper was one of the few to mention last year’s Supreme Court Janus decision, which prohibits charging non-union members fair share fees. “We have to reverse the Janus decisions and make sure unions succeed,” he said.
Castro, who while in town toured the tunnels beneath Las Vegas talking to its homeless inhabitants, connected economic insecurities faced by workers to the affordable housing crisis. “Housing ought to be a human right,” he said.
While he said he plans to release a comprehensive housing plan, he said some things that can be done include amping up traditional tools for creating more affordable housing, like expanding the low-income housing tax credit and investing in community development block grants. “We also should utilize new tools like the National Housing Trust Fund which is aimed at creating housing supply for people who are extremely low income,” he said.
In an interview with the Current, Klobuchar said in order to address affordable housing issues there needs to be a coalition that look at the crisis in both urban and rural areas. She also said other potential solutions include offering more tax credits for developers and making sure there is more funding for community development block grants.
Harris did also promote another piece of legislation called the Rent Relief Act, which is a tax credit to help people pay for housing.
While some candidates acknowledged how people of color, specifically women of color, often fare even worse when it comes to economic inequality and wage disparities, not all candidates offered specific plans on how they would help black and brown communities who face those discrepancies.
“I used to think the inequality we have in America was a function of the criminal justice system,” O’Rourke said. “In some part it is. If you look at the largest prison population on the planet, it is disproportionately comprised of people of color. But there are larger fundamental issues. There are 10 times the wealth in white America than there is in black America today … The maternal mortality crisis in this country, it’s three times as deadly for women of color and we are restricting their rights to access reproductive health care.”
Castro was the only candidate to talk about economic and housing inequality indigenous tribal communities face. “When I was in HUD, I traveled to 100 communities in 39 states and the deepest poverty I saw was on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation,” Castro said. “We need to get back to an America where everybody counts.”