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Activists continuing push for minimum wage ballot question

Martin Desmarais
Activists continuing push for minimum wage ballot question
Raise Up Massachusetts is a coalition of 50 state organizations that has increased its push in recent months for an increased minimum wage and earned sick time for workers.

Despite the Mass. Senate’s vote to raise the state’s minimum wage to $11 an hour, labor activists say they will continue to move forward on a ballot referendum to raise the minimum wage and ensure that all workers earn sick time if they or family members are ill.

Over the last several months, more than 50 Massachusetts organizations conducted a campaign to collect signatures on petitions to have questions about minimum wage and sick time on the November 2014 election ballot. Each petition needed about 100,000 signatures by Nov. 20 to get a question or proposed measure on the ballot.

Led by Dorchester-based Raise Up Massachusetts, a group of community, faith and labor organizations, about 275,000 signatures were collected — enough to place the questions on the ballot for a state-wide vote next year.

“We have gone far above and beyond what is needed because there is a lot to be said for strength in numbers,” said Susan Tousignant, president of SEIU Local 509 and a leader of the Raise Up Massachusetts coalition. “These numbers show just how many Massachusetts voters stand with families who need a higher minimum wage and earned sick time.”

The organization credits the success of the signature drive to the support of thousands of volunteers across the state, who hosted signature-gathering events statewide and went door-to-door collecting hundreds of signatures each.

Raise Up Massachusetts leaders also feel the support from the Massachusetts public is building on the growing support across the country for minimum wage and earned sick time issues. This year, New Jersey, California, New York and Connecticut have raised their state’s minimum wage. Earned sick time policies have recently been enacted in New Jersey, New York and Connecticut.

In Massachusetts, the efforts of the signature drive for the minimum wage question provides fuel to the fire of legislators pushing for a bill to raise minimum wage. With enough signatures to go to ballot next fall, legislators have until May to pass a bill on the issue or see the public decide at the voting booths.

Senate President Therese Murray proposed the $11 minimum wage increase, which would boost the yearly earnings of minimum wage workers from the current $16,000 a year to $22,000. The bill would also index minimum wage to inflation, guaranteeing automatic raises. Speaker Robert DeLeo has indicated the House will likely support an increase in the minimum wage, as long as the legislation is paired with reforms to the state’s unemployment insurance system.

As explained by Lew Finfer, director of the Massachusetts Communities Action Network and a steering committee member of Raise Up Massachusetts, the passage of a bill to raise minimum wage by Massachusetts legislators is a best case scenario for those pushing the petition for the ballot question next fall. He points out that this is exactly what happened when Massachusetts passed its health-care law in 2008. Legislators took note of the signatures collected for a petition and the public demand for a state health-care law and passed a law before it even got to a vote.

Deb Fastino, co-chair of Raise Up Massachusetts, acknowledges that with the passage of the Senate bill so far it is very possible the minimum wage question could be resolved by legislation. But that doesn’t mean the organization will stop its efforts to get a question on a ballot yet.

“We are very encouraged by what we saw with the Senate bill, we would like to see the same in the House,” Fastino said. “But if we deem it is not acceptable we will go to the ballot.”

Raise Up Massachusetts’ campaign is pushing to raise the minimum wage to $10.50 an hour — which is less than $11 an hour in the bill just passed by the Senate — and raise the tipped-employee wage to $6.60 an hour by 2016.

One thing that seems certain, however, is that the campaign will continue efforts to have a ballot question on earned sick time included in the 2014 election. While this issue may have become second fiddle to the Senate’s efforts to raise minimum wage, it is equally as important to labor activists and they will continue to drive forward on that issue, regardless of how legislators deal with the minimum wage increase.

According to Fastino, there has been no movement from legislators on any bill that would address earned sick time. She emphasized, though, that the signatures collected support that the voters are willing to see this issue on a ballot and that legislators should acknowledge this.

“They know the number of people across the state that support this. They cannot deny this,” she said.

Raise Up Massachusetts is looking to enact an earned sick time benefit that would give those who work for companies of 11 or more employees the ability to get five paid sick days a year and five unpaid sick days for those working for smaller companies.

Earned sick time gives workers the time to get preventative care such as doctor’s appointments, eye exams and yearly physicals. States and municipalities that have implemented earned sick time have seen job growth, and most employers report no negative impact on their profitability.

Finfer points out that there are 1 million workers in the state who don’t have earned sick time — about one-third of the state’s workers — and those without earned sick time are at risk of losing their jobs if they stay home to care for themselves or for a sick child.

Raise Up Massachusetts has some high-profile support from U.S. Sens. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and Ed Markey (D-Mass.) Both have lent their signatures to the effort.

“We are committed to working on both worker issues and we are going to continue to pursue it with our two-prong legislative strategy,” Fastino said. “We will continue on both.”