“You need to ask yourself whose interests you’re serving,” she told council members. “The fact that Cleveland is the poorest city in America answers that question. … The proverbial pigs at the troughs got too greedy. Now the rest of us are the proverbial mad-as-hell, and we’re not going to deal with it anymore.” (Cleveland.com, 08/10/2016)
These are the words of Executive Secretary Harriet Applegate of Cleveland AFL-CIO, speaking on behalf of all working people to Cleveland City Council. But why is so much of her public outlash directed toward the Democrats on City Council and not the Republican Legislature and Governor who passed it?
On December 19, Ohio Governor John Kasich signed Senate Bill 331 effectively denying municipalities the power to raise the minimum wage. On the surface this story doesn’t seem very newsworthy as it comes as no surprise a lame duck republican governor with a history of attacking labor would sign this bill. Of course there is the obvious hypocrisy of a Republican Governor, who on one hand advocates for smaller and a more decentralized government while in the other hand he signs those same rights away.
Far more sinister, however, are the Cleveland City Council Democrats who lobbied Governor Kasich to sign it! This is not only a slap in the face to all the Berniecrats who have spent a considerable amount of time building the Progressive Caucuses in the Cleveland area to pressure the Democratic Party on these specific issues, but also to Bernie supporters who embraced his endorsement of Hillary as a necessary compromise in exchange for progressive reforms to the party’s national platform. And to what effect? The ink had not even dried on the Democratic National Platform before Cleveland City Council demonstrated how worthless it is in guiding the party nor was Clinton able to defeat Trump despite these sacrifices.
The Democratic Party’s actions in Cleveland are hardly an exception to the actions of the party at large. The Democratic Party has also fought against $15 in Seattle and Minneapolis, both of which Socialist Alternative spearheaded. In fact, in every city that has fought for $15 the Democratic Party has fought back. Everywhere working people fight for a living wage, the Democratic Party fights to keep the people in poverty.
The events in Cleveland come after SEIU district 1199 and their initiative, Raise Up Cleveland, gathered thousands of signatures in an attempt to allow Cleveland a chance to vote on whether they wanted to raise the minimum wage incrementally to $15. At an upcoming special election, scheduled for May 2, voters in Cleveland were set to decide whether they wanted to raise the minimum wage. It had mass support and it likely would have won.
And why wouldn’t the people of Cleveland overwhelmingly support $15? According to the latest census data Cleveland’s poverty rate is at 34.7% and over half of all children live in poverty – making Cleveland one of the poorest city, if not the poorest, in the United States. Ohioans have not voted for a minimum wage increase in over a decade yet A Public Policy Polling (PPP) conducted in 2016 found 75% of Ohioans supported raising the minimum wage to at least $10 an hour from the impoverishing $8.15 that it’s at now.
The irony of this story becomes tragic when, in their opposition to $15, the Democrats cite their concern that a $15 minimum wage would deter their economic recovery. Really? Cleveland is the poorest city in the United States and the City Council is concerned that a living wage will deter their economic recovery! Is the city’s plan for economic recovery an expansion of even more poverty-inducing jobs?
Raise Up Cleveland, SEIU, and their backers successfully gathered over twenty-eight thousand signatures in 2016. However, in order to delay a citywide ballot, City Council stalled by holding endless discussions and debates. Democrats control all 17 seats on Cleveland City Council giving them single party rule over the city. All but one of the 17 Democratic city council members voted against the petition drive stopping it from appearing on the ballot for the November general election.
Then, as if this wasn’t egregious enough, Council President Kevin Kelley, doubled down on the party’s efforts to stop the initiative and lobbied Republican state legislators to push through Senate Bill 331 which prohibits cities from raising the minimum wage.
What has happened in Ohio is a major assault on the democratic rights of all people orchestrated by the Democratic and Republican parties together in collusion with big business. Election pundits need not look any further than Cleveland City Council and their betrayal of working people to understand why Ohioans, like many other midwestern rust belt states, couldn’t bring themselves to vote for Hillary which led to Trump’s near 10 point victory here.
This series of events, among many others witnessed in 2016, burdens all who are paying attention with the following question – If our democracy can’t be used to improve the quality of life for the average person, then who, or rather, which group, or which class of people does this democracy actually serve?
Other local labor leaders and local social justice activists also publicly voiced similar discontent. Cleveland NAACP President Mike Nelson has called on the black community to abstain from voting in the 2018 midterm and statewide elections. While Nelson’s comments reflect the discontent and disdain that most Ohioans feel toward their elected officials, boycotting the midterm elections would be a serious strategic miscalculation. If community and labor leaders are serious about fighting back against the interest of the 1% then they must encourage their rank and file to organize a new party for the 99% rather than to boycott politics entirely and do nothing!
Instead of relying on the Democrats to pursue policies and initiatives that are in the interest of working people, or attempting to reform the party, Unions should begin to lay the foundation of a new party for the 99%. This may sound far fetched, but for Cleveland it is not. Just next door in Loraine County nearly two dozen “independent labor” candidates ran for offices in 2013 and won! Instead of boycotting the elections, or relying on the Democrats yet again, why not run a labor party slate? The people of Cleveland clearly support the $15 initiative and the unions who fought for it and both are bitter from this recent betrayal. Will there not be a better time than now to do so?
In the case that the union leadership is unwilling to pursue this strategy then union members and people of our communities should take it upon themselves and run candidates independent of corporate money and the two-party system. This would not only lay a foundation for a new party, but also begin to organize the forces necessary for a statewide $15 minimum wage referendum and the necessary infrastructure to defend against another right-to-work attack that will inevitably be attempted again.
With a new Trump administration coming in, we can’t wait to fight back until 2018. We must both prepare to defend ourselves against Trump’s billionaires cabinet and continue to push for $15 minimum wage and other demands working people need.