In D.C.’s Wealthiest Suburbs, It’s Round 2 in the Fight for $15

Bruce Vail September 14, 2017

SEIU local 32BJ workers are leading the charge to win a $15 minimum wage in the D.C. suburbs of Montgomery County, Md. (SEIU 32BJ)

Unde­terred by a sting­ing defeat ear­li­er this year, a union-backed push for a $15-an-hour wage is back on in the Wash­ing­ton, D.C. sub­urbs — home to many of the senior civ­il ser­vants, lob­by­ists and office work­ers that run key fed­er­al agencies.

Maryland’s Mont­gomery Coun­ty Coun­cil will begin con­sid­er­ing a revised bill lat­er this month to raise the min­i­mum hourly wage from $11.50 to $15, and the out­look is hope­ful, says Demo­c­ra­t­ic Coun­cil­man Marc Elrich, the chief spon­sor. We are almost there,” Elrich says. I’m con­fi­dent we’ll make it this time.”

Sup­port­ers have already lined up enough votes to pass it, Elrich says. The most pow­er­ful obsta­cle remains oppo­si­tion from Demo­c­ra­t­ic Coun­ty Exec­u­tive Ike Leggett, who vetoed a sim­i­lar mea­sure in Jan­u­ary but has so far made no pub­lic deci­sion on the new ver­sion of the bill intro­duced in July.

As we get clos­er to the elec­tion, we are get­ting clos­er to a veto-proof major­i­ty,” in favor of the high­er min­i­mum, says Gino Renne, pres­i­dent of Unit­ed Food & Com­mer­cial Work­ers (UFCW) Local 1994. Though the elec­tions are not until next year, Renne says that orga­niz­ing around the Demo­c­ra­t­ic pri­ma­ry elec­tions for Coun­ty Coun­cil has already begun and is tilt­ing the play­ing field in favor of $15. The cam­paign­ing is ener­giz­ing pro­gres­sive ele­ments in the coun­ty with the emer­gence of new, left-lean­ing can­di­dates, some of whom are sharply crit­i­cal of the more mid­dle-of-the-road Leggett.

Mont­gomery Coun­ty, a sprawl­ing net­work of sub­ur­ban towns that is home to around one mil­lion peo­ple, is known pri­mar­i­ly for its afflu­ence. With a medi­an house­hold income of $98,917, Mont­gomery is among the wealth­i­est coun­ties in the coun­try. Sub­ur­ban towns like Bethes­da and Chevy Chase are emblem­at­ic of the class divide in the D.C. region, stand­ing out as sub­ur­ban islands of priv­i­lege for the afflu­ent, while low­er-income minori­ties remain large­ly con­fined to the urban enclaves of D.C.

But Mont­gomery is also home to a well-estab­lished group of labor unions that is able to make its pow­er felt in local pol­i­tics, says Jaime Con­tr­eras, vice pres­i­dent of Ser­vice Employ­ees Inter­na­tion­al Union (SEIU) Local 32BJ. SEIU, the force behind the broad­er Fight for $15 cam­paign, has joined with UFCW, Labor­ers Inter­na­tion­al Union of North Amer­i­ca and oth­er unions to pro­vide insti­tu­tion­al sup­port for the high­er min­i­mum wage push in Montgomery.

I wouldn’t say that the prospects are bright exact­ly, but they are promis­ing,” says Con­tr­eras. On the Coun­ty Coun­cil we have five votes for the $15, which is enough to pass it. But we need six votes for a veto-proof major­i­ty. We don’t have that yet.”

But Con­tr­eras agrees with UFCW’s Renne that the upcom­ing Coun­ty Coun­cil elec­tions are shift­ing the polit­i­cal ground in favor of the high­er wage. Mean­while, the state’s Demo­c­ra­t­ic guber­na­to­r­i­al pri­ma­ry is heat­ing up, and sev­er­al of the lead­ing can­di­dates are sup­port­ers of the Fight for $15. Work­ers can real­ly use some help from their local gov­ern­ment, because they are not get­ting it from the White House,” says Contreras.

To avoid anoth­er veto, Coun­cil­man Elrich tells In These Times that sup­port­ers plan to amend the bill in response to some of the com­plaints of its oppo­nents. For exam­ple, small busi­ness­es will be giv­en addi­tion­al time to phase in the high­er wage, and sup­port­ers are will­ing to nego­ti­ate oth­er minor changes to attract addi­tion­al Coun­cil votes. Elrich didn’t want to lay out spe­cif­ic com­pro­mis­es, say­ing instead that pro­po­nents of the $15 bill are open” to well-inten­tioned pro­pos­als that would broad­en support. 

There is a process of hear­ings and amend­ments that will take place, so we have a chance to make refine­ments or improve­ments that should get us addi­tion­al votes,” says Elrich. I think we should get to six votes — the veto-proof major­i­ty — by ear­ly October.”

In an attempt to jus­ti­fy his veto of the wage increase, Coun­ty Exec­u­tive Leggett com­mis­sioned a study ear­li­er this year that claimed the coun­ty would lose 47,000 jobs as a result of the raise. Sup­port­ers of the $15 push, how­ev­er, crit­i­cized the report’s method­ol­o­gy and its find­ings. The study was just crap” designed to back up Leggett’s oppo­si­tion, says Elrich. And an exam­i­na­tion of the study led the D.C.-based Eco­nom­ic Pol­i­cy Insti­tute to label it junk science.”

Leggett was forced to acknowl­edge the poten­tial flaws in the study, Renne explains, and that is set­ting a pos­i­tive tone for dis­cus­sion around the bill sched­uled to be con­sid­ered lat­er this month. Leggett said he is will­ing to sign the bill if it won’t be harm­ful to local busi­ness­es. His own study doesn’t back up any crit­i­cism on those grounds,” Renne says. At the end of the day, I think Leggett will recon­sid­er and sign the bill.” 

Bruce Vail is a Bal­ti­more-based free­lance writer with decades of expe­ri­ence cov­er­ing labor and busi­ness sto­ries for news­pa­pers, mag­a­zines and new media. He was a reporter for Bloomberg BNA’s Dai­ly Labor Report, cov­er­ing col­lec­tive bar­gain­ing issues in a wide range of indus­tries, and a mar­itime indus­try reporter and edi­tor for the Jour­nal of Com­merce, serv­ing both in the newspaper’s New York City head­quar­ters and in the Wash­ing­ton, D.C. bureau.
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