Winning a Living Wage Ordinance from the Grassroots

Thousands of tourists visit "Old Town" Alexandria, Virginia to stroll the quaint colonial-era district. Workers like Mussie Habetezion tend the visitors' cars in the city-owned parking lot. He, like many of his co-workers, left Ethiopia and landed a $7 an hour job in Alexandria. After working a full shift at the parking lot, Habetezion scrambled to an eight-hour overnight shift at 7-Eleven and worked at a pharmacy on weekends.

Alexandria sits across the Potomac River from the nation's capital, in right-to-work Virginia. Among the 120,000 people living here, twenty percent of households had incomes over $100,000. Yet one out five kids lives in poverty.

Since 1986, the Tenants' and Workers' Support Committee (TWSC), a feisty community organization, had won victories in housing, education, and workers' rights. By 1997 our predominantly African-American and Latino members were ready to help launch the next fight: a Living Wage Ordinance!

A STRATEGIC PLAN

Our first stage was developing a strategic campaign plan. Our long-term goal: build a permanent labor-religious-community coalition for workers' rights. Our short-term goal: pass a living wage ordinance requiring city contractors such as janitorial, landscaping, and parking lot companies to pay at least $9.84/hour. We needed four out of seven city council members to vote "yes." We determined our potential allies, opponents, and resources needed, and, on a big wall chart, we wrote a campaign timeline for the next three years. This map kept us on track and prevented us from floundering from action to action.

In the next stage we spent nine months quietly building strength "underground," deliberately under the radar screen of elected officials, the media, and the Chamber of Commerce. We built a broad coalition of unions, religious congregations, and community groups. The TWSC donated one staffer to serve as full-time campaign director and one half-time community organizer for the Latino neighborhoods.

In the final stage (the next two years) we launched escalating tactics on our targets. We learned that powerful tactics can make officials do things they don't want to do. Our power was our ability to inflict costs on council members who opposed us, and reward those who supported us.

CAMPAIGN KICKS OFF

Our two-track approach used both street actions and grassroots lobbying. A Labor Day march in 1998 kicked off our public campaign. A series of rallies grew larger and more militant. On Human Rights Day, December 10, we held an interfaith prayer vigil; on Martin Luther King Day we marched on City Hall. Next Labor Day we held council members' feet to the fire at a raucous rally, and on our second Human Rights Day we silently took over Council chambers.

Dozens of "delegations" jammed council members' offices with unionists, religious activists, and low-income workers. We flooded them with over 600 postcards, gathered door-to-door in low-income neighborhoods. We dramatically delivered thousands of petition signatures. We rang their phones off the hook, taking cell phones into workplaces, where union members called their elected officials directly from the shop floor.

As elections neared, we kept hammering at candidates' forums, while our allies helped to sweep a pro-living wage candidate into office.

Three years of organizing paid off on June 18, 2000, when council voted 6-0 to pass our living wage. Now at over $10/hour, our ordinance was the first in Virginia. It's affecting an estimated $4 million worth of contracts, bringing about $400,000 in additional wages into the pockets of workers.

Opponents quickly fought back, trying to roll back our ordinance and ban all living wage laws. In January 2001 they introduced three bills in the legislature. With outstanding leadership from the state AFL-CIO, we quickly expanded our coalition: union, religious, and community leaders mobilized affiliates throughout the state. Parking lot workers, the first ones raised to $10/hour by our law, told legislators about being able to quit second jobs and spend time with their families. Finally, our coalition defeated the bills and saved the living wage jobs.

LESSONS LEARNED

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Our monthly meetings had agendas, were disciplined and short: a political update, accountability for tasks (did people do what they promised to do?), and planning next steps. We structured ourselves into four working committees: mobilization, coalition-building, communications, and research.

Short, fun actions escalated over time. We put ourselves into the elected officials' shoes to test our ideas, and evaluated each action afterwards: did it move them in favor of the living wage? A "council-o-meter" chart rated each member's support, as we aimed to push four out of seven into "yes" votes.

Rigorous turn-out methods insured big rallies: a postcard, phone call, another postcard, and final call got people out, while a "thank you phone bank" called them afterwards. At rallies, volunteers circulated through the crowd, asking supporters to sign in; our database kept track of who showed up, and which individuals and groups to thank.

Our coalition-building committee met face-to-face with leaders of targeted groups. We pushed leaders to contribute: money, mobilizing members, printing flyers, or (for unions) lending us activists on lost-time pay. We visited leaders monthly, developing relationships, always asking what solidarity they needed from us.

We rallied with Teamsters organizing cleaning workers, Iron Workers protesting non-union construction, and Flight Attendants preparing for a strike. We contributed solidarity and asked for solidarity in return. We helped our allies mobilize by learning each organization's unique internal structure, working through a union's shop stewards' council or a church's social justice committee. Stewards distributed leaflets in the workplace, religious activists held prayer meetings after worship services, and community members hosted house meetings.

Our communications committee generated coverage of rallies, got op-ed pieces published, set up radio interviews, booked our leaders on cable TV talk shows, and sent letters to the editor.

MAKE IT EASY ON REPORTERS

We developed relations with reporters, recognizing that they are workers, a key insight. Often, the easier we made a reporter's job, the more likely our issue would be covered. That meant role-playing with leaders, so they had "sound-bites" ready when interviewed, and hand-delivering press packets and photos of a rally immediately to a reporter's office.

Our research committee understood from the beginning that we weren't going to win simply because we were right. Research was focused solely on helping us build power. So we investigated city contractor information in order to talk to workers, and to wield the financial numbers offensively.

Relentless persistence was crucial. When the city attorney, council members, state attorney general, and state legislators each said no, we just kept going and prepared for the long haul.

Since our victory we've kept rolling. Our coalition is rallying around the TWSC's drive to organize childcare workers. And roving volunteers act as our "grassroots enforcement" team: armed with contractor information and clipboards, activists interview workers to insure they're receiving the living wage. We're ready to launch aggressive campaigns to bring errant companies into compliance.

Contact Gyula Nagy at 202/387-3267.