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Policy Matters: Where Do the Candidates Stand on Workers’ Rights and the Fight for 15?

This past weekend, U.S. Senator Kamala Harris (D-California) campaigned her way through Southern Nevada. One of her stops here was at the Fight for 15 strike at a McDonald’s roughly three miles east of the Las Vegas Strip. And thus far, several more Democratic presidential candidates have been moving beyond Nevada’s most famous street to meet with (even) more of the workers who keep this state moving.

So what do these actual workers think of the candidates’ statements of support, and how exactly do the Democratic candidates plan to level the playing field for these workers?

“They don’t want to pay you what you’re actually worth. They want to give the people who keep the business going less while they give the people who don’t do nothing more, and that’s not right.”
– Obadiah Harris, McDonald’s worker and Fight for 15 Las Vegas activist
Photo by Andrew Davey

As we awaited Kamala Harris’ arrival at the McDonald’s near Eastern and Flamingo to show her solidarity with these and other workers struggling with low wages and deplorable working conditions, I spoke with McDonald’s worker Isabel Contreras about her experience there. She recalled how one time, “When my daughter got sick, I had to [care for her]. I called in sick 30 minutes after my shift started, and I got suspended for that.” Contreras then confirmed that some of her co-workers have had similar experiences of punishment from management over tending to family emergencies.

(Editor’s Note: I apologize for the rough audio below. We did the interview with Isabel Contreras just steps away from the sidewalk where other activists were chanting.)

After the march, I spoke with Obadiah Harris (no relation to Kamala Harris), another worker at this McDonald’s. Normally workers here start around $9.30 per hour, but Obadiah Harris contended that wage theft knocked his earnings down to $9 per hour. “It’s a good thing my wife has a good job, but it’s been a struggle all the time,” Obadiah Harris noted. He continued, “They don’t want to pay you what you’re actually worth. They want to give the people who keep the business going less while they give the people who don’t do nothing more, and that’s not right.”

I then asked Obadiah Harris about AB 456 and AJR 10, the two bills (one signed by Governor Steve Sisolak [D], another being a constitutional amendment) to raise Nevada’s minimum wage to $12 per hour by 2024. While he appreciates the prospective pay raise, Obadiah Harris said these bills won’t provide enough of a raise for fast-food and other service workers in need: “You’re talking about five years away. That’s way too long. We have the money to do it. It’s long past time for [a more substantive minimum wage increase] to be done.”

“We have got to recognize that these working people deserve livable wages […] We’ll fight and shout for the people and for justice and for the fight for 15!”
– Kamala Harris

As we noted last Friday, Kamala Harris made quite clear where she stands on the Fight for 15 movement. “We have got to recognize that these working people deserve livable wages,” she exclaimed. Kamala Harris continued, “If we have to let people know we are not going to stand for it until we get freedom and equality and fairness and livable wages, we’ll fight and shout for the people and for justice and for the fight for 15!”

Indeed, just six weeks prior to this at the SEIU/CAP Forum on Wages and Working People just a few blocks south of that McDonald’s, Kamala Harris joined fellow Senators Amy Klobuchar (D-Minnesota) and Elizabeth Warren (D-Massachusetts), along with former Rep. Beto O’Rourke (D-Texas), former HUD Secretary Julián Castro, and former Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper (D) in endorsing a $15 per hour national minimum wage. In addition, Rep. Eric Swalwell (D-California) and Senators Bernie Sanders (I-Vermont), Kirsten Gillibrand (D-New York), and Cory Booker (D-New Jersey) are on record supporting the Fight for 15 movement. And while speaking at the Painters’ Union hall in Henderson last month, former Vice President Joe Biden broke from former President Barack Obama in declaring, “We need to raise the wage to $15. Folks should not be working for poverty wages.”

So this is where today’s story ends… Right? Wrong. Both Isabel Contreras and Obadiah Harris told stories that touch upon additional challenges many American workers must contend with, such as workplace harassment, sick leave, and wage theft.

“Unions built the middle class. Unions will rebuild the middle class.”
– Elizabeth Warren
Photo by Andrew Davey

What, you didn’t think she has a plan for this? Indeed, at the SEIU/CAP Forum in April, Elizabeth Warren detailed her plan of action on workers’ rights. She promised a Warren administration will mean federal departments and agencies that fight alongside unions and workers, not against them, in clamping down on workplace abuse. And more specifically, Warren has also endorsed equal workplace protections for women, LGBTQ+ workers, and workers of color (more on this later this week). In addition, she’s proposed an “economic patriotism” plan to rebuild the nation’s manufacturing base by shifting the federal government’s goal from cheap imports to valued exports.

Back to SEIU/CAP, Warren also promised to push for passage of her Accountable Capitalism Act, a bill that establishes an Office of United States Corporations within the Commerce Department and requires corporations with over $1 billion in annual revenue to obtain a charter from this new office to continue operating. That charter then requires that executives of these large corporations consider the best interests of workers and consumers in addition to those of major shareholders, and the charter mandates that at least 40% of the boards of directors at these companies be elected by the workers.

Since launching her campaign near the site of the 1912 textile workers’ “Bread and Roses Strike”, Warren has argued she walks the talk on workers’ rights, even to the point of recognizing her campaign staff’s union earlier this month (joining Bernie Sanders, Julián Castro, and Eric Swalwell in having unionized campaigns). As Warren told the crowd at SEIU/CAP in April, “Unions built the middle class. Unions will rebuild the middle class.”

“When we fight for justice, it means we will not accept 46% of new income go to the top 1% while millions of Americans work two or three jobs just to survive.”
– Bernie Sanders
Photo by Andrew Davey

Not to be outdone by Warren, some of the other candidates have offered their own pro-worker policy plans. Back to Kamala Harris, she endorsed a nationwide ban on state and local “right-to-work” laws that restrict union organizing at workplaces at the SEIU/CAP Forum. And more recently, she released an equal pay plan that requires companies to prove there’s no discrimination in wages and benefits in order to receive “equal pay certification”, or else face 1% penalty for each 1% of pay disparity.

On a fairly related note, Bernie Sanders has regularly condemned the growing income inequality crisis in this nation. When he was in Henderson this past March, Sanders declared, “When we fight for justice, it means we will not accept 46% of new income go to the top 1% while millions of Americans work two or three jobs just to survive.”

Like Warren, Sanders has endorsed reworking the federal government to reposition it on the side of workers and unions. He’s also been consistent in opposing multinational trade agreements (like NAFTA and TPP) that many labor activists view as detrimental to workers’ rights at home and abroad. And more recently, he’s proposed the “Stop BEZOS Act” to penalize companies like Amazon (or companies with 500 or more employees) with a 100% penalty tax equivalent to the amount of social safety net support (such as SNAP and Medicaid) their workers must utilize to make ends meet. Sanders has earned some allies who see the “Stop BEZOS Act” as an effective tool to make Amazon and other large employers to pay their workers better, though others on the left (such as the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities) fear it might backfire in encouraging right-wing policymakers to further restrict access to social safety net programs so these companies will never have to pay such penalties.

What about the others?
Photo by Andrew Davey

As Harris, Warren, Sanders, and a few other Democratic candidates have offered specific policies and legislation to address workplace and income inequality, others have tended to avoid specifics. While South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg has talked about reframing economic justice as matters of “freedom” and “values”, he’s yet to “walk the talk” in terms of concrete plans to raise wages.

And then, there’s Joe Biden. On one hand, Biden has positioned himself as a “union man” on the campaign trail. But on the other hand, Biden has sought support from anti-union “power players”, his own record of “standing with unions” is mixed at best, and he’s yet to explain his past support for the very multinational trade agreements that Sanders and many unions have opposed.

So who’s the real “working class hero” in the 2020 Democratic field? I’ll leave that up for you to decide. In the meantime, though, stay tuned this week for another new “Policy Matters” that examines these candidates track records on LGBTQ+ equality.

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