The Grass Roots Fight For A Living Wage

“I was brought up to see what was has happening around me and not to turn a blind eye to the conditions people in my community were struggling with.”

–Jennifer Epps-Addison, Executive Director Wisconsin Jobs Now

It was a lesson taught to Epps-Addison early in life by her parents and grandparents and has helped to mold someone Bill Moyers has noted as one of the top 20 young organizers in the country today.

Epps-Addison, with nearly 15 years of community involvement, has used her organizing and communications expertise to play an integral role in winning campaigns on issues such as community economic development policy, paid sick days, and in-state tuition for undocumented immigrants. She was the winner of the 2013 Edna Award, which honors women age 35 or younger who have distinguished themselves as leaders of the social justice movement. Today, as Executive Director for Wisconsin Jobs Now, she guides a non-profit organization committed to fighting income inequality from the bottom up and building stronger communities throughout Wisconsin. For more on Wisconsin Jobs Now, see below.

“I’m blessed to work for an organization whose top priority is making sure the people who are struggling are equipped with the tools to fight back."

“I’m blessed to work for an organization whose top priority is making sure the people who are struggling are equipped with the tools to fight back.”

Growing up in Milwaukee—a city that has been described as the most racially segregated in the nation—Epps-Addison witnessed first-hand at an early age what public school segregation looked like. Its impact helped to shape her life as an organizer and fighter for the people. Although she attended a Milwaukee public school, her brother was part of a school desegregation program and he attended school in a suburban district.

“Early on I was able to see the differences in opportunities the kids in different school districts had,” Epps-Addison said in a recent interview with Wisdom Voices. “When I was in high school Tommy Thompson (then Wisconsin governor) rolled out a plan to disband all Milwaukee Public Schools. I felt compelled to do something. So with other students, I helped to organize a walk out of high school students and went to the Governor with a real education plan that was crafted by students.”

It was that experience, Epps-Addison says, that made her realize that organizing and assisting others to have their voices heard was something she wanted to do as a career. Her next stop was at the University of Wisconsin-Madison where she earned her undergraduate and law degrees. “It was an incredible school to attend because students had control over segregated fees,” Epps-Addison said. “It was a shared governance structure with administration, faculty, and students. I learned the craft of organizing and was able to test it out on the campus and the wider community. I studied organizing (at UW) throughout the world, and social movements in the United States because I wanted our country to live up to the values and ideals that I was taught as a child.”

A career built around community organizing included leading the charge for Milwaukee’s MORE ordinance, which established that 40 percent of all construction jobs on publicly funded projects would go to city residents. She also directed a campaign to pass the Milwaukee Jobs Act, which created entry-level construction opportunities for unemployed city residents. Wisconsin Jobs Now has been front-and-center in the recent worker strikes for higher minimum wage. What started in New York City has spread to many other cities, including Milwaukee, whose under-paid fast food and retail workers have continued to strike for not just a minimum wage but also for a “living wage.”

“It’s been such an honor to do what I do and work with whom I do it,” she said. “I know it’s hard, especially with the recent Supreme Court ruling (Harris v. Quinn) and with politics in general. People feel as though the system is rigged against us. I don’t think those feelings are unwarranted. I have my moments of frustration but I ground myself in incredible hope and optimism that I see in the people who are most directly affected every day.

“I’m blessed to work for an organization whose top priority is making sure that the people who are struggling through these conditions are equipped with the tools to fight back. I think that’s what Wisconsin Jobs Now does—it gives people a space to come together collectively…to come up with ideas on how to fight back in a system that honestly is rigged against them. Milwaukee is known as being the most segregated city by race, but it’s also the most segregated by income. Income inequality is an incredible issue we’re facing in Milwaukee and across the state in general. I make it my mission to empower poor and working class people—those who make the state run on an everyday basis, whether they’re caring for children or an aging parent with Alzheimer’s or cleaning up or serving food—those are the people who make the state great. I want to make the state better for them and make their communities stronger and healthier. The best way to do that is to help them stand up and demand more from their employers.

“What’s most exciting is that we just introduced minimum wage ballot initiatives across the state (for the November election),” she said. “We don’t have direct ballot authority (in Wisconsin) but we have the power to place these advisory questions on the ballot and give people the option to have their say. A full 76 percent here believe the minimum wage should be raised and yet we have a governor who won’t raise it by one cent. So he is far out-of-step with the majority of the public.

“I’m grateful that I can help amplify our voices because ultimately those in my neighborhood don’t want to hear about a minimum wage; they want to hear about a living wage. They’re tired of just getting by on the bare minimum—scraping to pay for their electric bills, for their heat, and prescriptions. People here work hard. And they were told that in this country if you work hard and play by the rules and do what you’re supposed to do, you’re supposed to be able to build a good life for your family. Unfortunately that’s no longer the case. People are working 2-3 jobs and are not making ends meet. That wasn’t the country I was raised to believe in. I think back to my parents’ time. When they got married, it was still illegal in some states for inter-racial marriage. They lived through their own times in which they expanded the conversation and hoped and brought forth new ideas and worked for what was needed to make our country evolve into the country they believed in. That’s what we’re seeing with the worker movement that got its spark in 2011. We’re seeing it come to fruition in 2014. What we’re saying now is that ‘we’re ready; we deserve more; we’re not settling for table scraps and we’re going to fight for more.’ And what that means is a real living wage that allows us dignity in our labor.”

Wisconsin Jobs Now and Jennifer Epps-Addison helping workers fight for a living wage.

Wisconsin Jobs Now and Jennifer Epps-Addison helping workers fight for a living wage.

Epps-Addison remains optimistic even in times when Citizens United puts the rich and powerful in the driver’s seat for some much of the political action today. She reminds us that the political sphere is but one of many that can bring change.

“The challenge is to help everyday people have their voices heard because unfettered, unlimited money in politics has really corrupted the idea of one person/one vote and every voice counting,” she said. “And the way you get around that is to not add one more voice to the lobbyist roles in capitols around the country, but rather to actually get out in the street and to have a crisis moment for the people making these decisions. I can’t tell you how many times we’ve gone to a boss’ home or legislator’s home (to protest) and have people shake their finger at us and say, ‘how dare you go to someone’s home; what they are doing is their job.’ But people forget that decisions employers and politicians make (in their jobs) affect ordinary people’s homes every single day.

“When our governor (Scott Walker) decides to reject Medicaid expansion, real people die. Parents lose children and children lose parents. There are real consequences for the decisions made. What we do is train people to say, ‘you don’t have to just sit there and accept it. You can make life as uncomfortable for people making these decisions as they are for making your lives uncomfortable’ so they come to the table to talk to you and bargain with you as an equal.

“That’s what our ancestors did at the turn of the 20th century with what was then dangerous factory jobs in Milwaukee. People lost their lives and there was no workman’s comp, but the workers turned those factories into providing the good and sustaining careers that we’re all wishing would come back to the US. You look at those jobs and they were not what we all idolized. They were dangerous, dirty jobs, and we turned them—through the power of organizing collectively—into the engine that built the greatest middle class in history of the world.

“I look at the history of our country and I have studied the history of global social movements. If you look at it, the Supreme Court once decided that separate and equal was the law of the land and discrimination was OK. It took Brown v. Board of Education to overturn Plessy vs. Ferguson. At the end of day, you can’t stop progress when people are in the streets. I just read an article written by a Seattle millionaire (Nick Hanauer: The Pitchforks Are Coming For Us Plutocrats) talking about how the millionaires and billionaires should get behind the $15 minimum wage before there is a real revolution of working people in the streets. And I think we’ve reached a tipping point already and that revolution is already happening. The more that people cover it and the more who are willing to stand up and support them, the greater chance we have of tipping the scales.”

Wisconsin Jobs Now

As Executive Director of Wisconsin Jobs Now, Epps-Addison directs the organization’s five major goals:

  • Winning higher wages for workers
  • Improving on-the-job conditions
  • Ensuring healthy and secure neighborhoods
  • Encouraging grassroots leadership
  • Elevating the political voice of underrepresented communities

Wisconsin Jobs Now has a state reach that includes organizers on the ground in four cities – Milwaukee, Madison, Wausau, and the Fox Valley (a consortium of cities north of Milwaukee). They also have statewide lists of volunteers so that in smaller/rural communities or cities in the outlaying parts of the state in which no organizer is on the ground, resources are available to help people with activities such as writing an opinion editorial. They also provide support on organizing an event or teach-in to talk about issues.

Wisconsin Jobs Now -- on the front lines of grass roots organizing.

Wisconsin Jobs Now — on the front lines of grass roots organizing.

“We’re trying to set the tone for our state,” Epps-Addison said. “We won’t be satisfied until we hear people in Pepin, Wausau, Florence County, Eau Claire, and all over the state having these conversations (about workers rights and living wages). Wisconsinites are some hardest working people I’ve ever met and yet for decades we’ve seeing the average share of the income shrink in this state. I want to see these conversations happening in places other than Milwaukee. I think the rest of the state is (sadly) catching up to the great depression that Milwaukee has been under for decades.

“Our priority at Wisconsin Jobs Now is how do we lift up and broaden the voices of our state so that people don’t see Milwaukee as this scary place that’s so different, but rather as a big city with hundreds of thousands of other people just like every other Wisconsinite—they want to have safe communities, and good schools, and take their kids to the doctor when they’re sick.

“It’s a huge honor that the workers we’ve been training and supporting are getting a larger and larger share of the spotlight; they’re helping to change the narrative and that’s very important. There was a recent story that came out about how attitudes are shifting and people are no longer seeing poverty as something as poor choices that make you poor. Rather they’re beginning to see it as there is very much a system outside the control of everyday people that perpetuates poverty. The idea that you can go into businesses and working class neighborhoods and train people to stand up for themselves and say there is enough money for me to make a living wage and pay all my bills I think is very exciting. Workers in Wisconsin are helping to seta tone nationally, and that’s exciting.”

To learn more about Wisconsin Jobs Now and how to support their efforts, click here.

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