Netroots grassroots: Progressive Caucus launches “Raise Up America” drive

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SAN JOSE, Calif. - Rasheen Aldridge, a young worker from St. Louis, presented the face of America's low wage economy on June 21 at the Netroots Nation premiere of the Congressional Progressive Caucus campaign to "Raise Up America." At the Parque de los Pobladores event here, Aldridge opened by saying you "can't survive on $7.35," eliciting a call-and-response from the crowd. Rasheen was there with another worker, Darius Chambers, both supported by Reps. Keith Ellison, D-Minn., Mark Takano, D-Calif., and Mark Pocan, D-Wis., to announce the new three-point campaign to help low-wage workers proposed by the Progressive Caucus.

Aldridge and Chambers related their experiences trying to function in major U.S. cities while receiving low pay, short hours, and a lack of respect. Aldridge works at Jimmy John's, a popular sandwich chain, in St. Louis, while Chambers works at Tim Horton's in Detroit. A horrified ripple moved through the crowd at the event when Aldridge related humiliating disciplinary actions at Jimmy John's for minor infractions, such he and another worker being required to hold up signs in the restaurant detailing their errors.

Darius Chambers is a young father who can scarcely cover basic expenses on his wage of $7.40 an hour. He struggles to spread his earnings to support himself and try to obtain necessities for his baby daughter. Detroit Mayor David Bing recently said that $14.85 is the amount needed to survive on a daily basis in the city, at the least. However, many service economy workers make about half that. "It's becoming a big problem in our city," said Chambers.

Many low wage workers are forced to apply for food stamps and other public assistance when corporations pay only the bare minimum wage in places where a person needs twice that to cover basic survival costs. In addition, managers short employees on hours, making a double crisis of low wages while also making workers ineligible for health benefits.

Aldridge and Chambers have been risking their jobs in spite of their tenuous circumstances by striking for better work conditions and by speaking out on the conditions of life in low-wage America. Aldridge concluded his address by saying, "These are big million-dollar companies that are going to try to pick us off slowly."

Stories like this are becoming more common and have spurred the Congressional Progressive Caucus to push for three reforms to help prevent the outsized dominance of the one percent over low-wage workers. Rep. Ellison gave a rousing address at the Netroots event outlining the new "Raise Up America" plan:

* Raise the national minimum wage

* Make it easier for low wage workers to unionize

* Require living wages for workers hired by federal contractors.

Rep. Pocan related his recent experience participating in the Food Stamp Challenge, feeling keenly the lack of food and resources that the small allotment provides to a family. Pocan underscored the experience of low wage workers with an observation on the rising wealth disparity in the United States: "One inch of increase to the 99 pecent" is equivalent to "five miles of increase to the one percent." Pocan concluded. "The growing income inequality gap is bad for job growth, it's bad for our deficits, it's bad for the most vulnerable in our society."

Rep. Takano underscored his heartfelt support for this new initiative: "We stand in Congress on the side of the 99 percent against the one percent. So we need this campaign, we need to raise the minimum wage, we need to raise up the 99 percent of America."

The "Raise Up America" campaign will move out on a multi-city tour this summer. Rep. Ellison asked the audience to support the campaign and spread the word: "Tweet it out, Facebook it, Instagram it out, whatever you got, do it."

The June 21 event was one highlight of Netroot Nation's eighth annual gathering, June 20-23, here in San Jose. Netroots Nation describes its mission as aiming to "amplify progressive voices by providing an online and in-person campus for exchanging ideas and learning how to be more effective in using technology to influence the public debate."

Photo: Rasheen Aldridge, a low-wage Jimmy John's worker in St. Louis, speaks at the "Raise Up America" event at Netroots Nation, June 21, San Jose, Calif. At left is Darius Chambers, who works at Tim Horton's in Detroit. At right is Rep. Keith Ellison, D-Minn., co-chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus. Michelle Kern/PW

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