As Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders and other presidential hopefuls wooed party leaders in Minneapolis during the Democratic National Committee meetings last weekend, local worker and retiree groups mobilized inside and outside the event, looking to push their concerns to the forefront of the 2016 campaign.
On Friday, activists with 15Now Minnesota rallied for a $15 minimum wage outside the downtown Hilton, where contenders for the Democratic presidential were offering much-publicized speeches.
And on Saturday, union retirees and other Minnesota seniors elbowed their way onto the agenda of the DNC Seniors Coordinating Council’s meeting. They urged the party to put forth a bold vision for strengthening Social Security and Medicare, and ensuring economic security for all seniors.
Led by the Minnesota State Retiree Council, AFL-CIO, seniors staged a program that featured testimonials, a sing-along with the Twin Cities Labor Chorus and an actor – Barry ZeVan – portraying former President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, ZeVan’s childhood hero.
FDR signed the Social Security Act 80 years ago, in part, to combat high rates of poverty among the nation’s seniors. Martha Johnson, a retired member of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, urged party leaders to “be in the FDR tradition and take strong positions on senior issues.”
‘Scrap the cap’
Johnson, a former president of the retiree council, drew a standing ovation when she called on lawmakers to “scrap” the payroll-tax cap that shields income earned above a designated amount – currently $118,500 – from Social Security deductions.
“That would fund full benefits to the middle of the century,” Johnson said, and would represent a “step toward long-term stability” for Social Security.
Other speakers warned against efforts to privatize Social Security or reduce benefits, including President Obama’s failed attempt to link annual inflationary increases to the so-called “chained CPI.” It’s estimated a third of U.S. seniors rely on Social Security as their only source of income, and weakening the program would threaten the economic security of millions of other retirees.
“People face very unattractive choices,” Johnson said. “They keep working into old age, or they retire into poverty.”
After the retirees’ program concluded, U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison took the podium and pledged to keep fighting for Social Security, Medicare and income security for seniors. The Minneapolis DFLer urged retirees, in turn, to tune into debates surrounding proposed service cuts at the U.S. Postal Service and the sprawling Trans-Pacific Partnership.
The NAFTA-style trade agreement has the potential to impact prescription drug prices, Ellison warned, as pharmaceutical companies look to extend patents on pharmaceuticals and grow their profits.
“I’m just appalled – a life saving drug that you need to survive, and somebody wants to ratchet up the price on it?” Ellison said. “It’s not fair and it’s gouging people.”
Raise the wage
About 20 people joined the rally for a $15 federal minimum wage a day earlier. 15Now organizer Ty Moore said DNC officials reached out in advance of the demonstration, a sign that party leaders “understand that this issue, even with just this small crowd today, has a huge resonance in the wider community.”
15Now campaigns – alive in Minneapolis, St. Paul and at MSP International Airport – have won minimum-wage hikes in Seattle, Los Angeles, San Francisco and other cities. And two Democratic presidential candidates, Sanders and former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley, already support $15 nationwide.
“We welcome that, but we want to push on,” campaign organizer Ginger Jentzen said. “We want every presidential candidate to speak to the issue of $15 an hour.”
Minnesota’s minimum wage recently increased from $8 to $9 per hour. But Najma Ahmed, who works two minimum-wage jobs and attends Minneapolis Community and Technical College, said she and her family of five “scrounge just to live.”
If given the opportunity, what would she tell the presidential candidates gathered inside the Hilton?
“I would tell them that it’s really hard as it is making $9 per hour,” Ahmed said. “I would tell them to support free education and to increase the minimum wage. We have a right to live and be paid decently.”