“Living wage” ballot question in primary election will improve lives of workers, boost growing social justice movement
Philadelphia - Tuesday, May 20, 2014
Faith leaders from 40 congregations across the city – together known as POWER (Philadelphians Organized to Witness, Empower & Rebuild) – today celebrate the passage of Ballot Question #1 to raise the wage for thousands of workers. With its passage, they also celebrate three months of systemic voter engagement that resulted in nearly 50,000 calls and doorknocks and over 4500 commitments to vote from Philadelphians who don't regularly vote in primaries. With 97% of precincts reporting, Ballot Question #1 was ahead with 93,000 yes votes, versus 30,000 no votes, according to the Office of the City Commissioners website.
The interfaith coalition POWER, which counts more than 25,000 individual members, worked closely with union partners over the past 2 years to promote higher wage and benefit standards for employees with firms that are subcontracted out to carry out city business.
“Many of my members are barely surviving, even though they work full-time for big companies. I said to myself ‘we have to change this’ - well, this week, we did” said Rev. Melanie DeBouse, pastor of Evangel Chapel in North Philadelphia and POWER leader.
City officials had argued for years that such workers are not covered under the 21st Century Minimum Wage and Benefits Standard ($10.88/hour plus benefits), resulting in thousands of workers on publicly-subsidized contracts earning poverty wages and relying on safety net programs like food stamps. In response to growing public outrage about this, City Council voted last fall to place today’s referendum on the ballot and, more recently, Mayor Michael Nutter signed an executive order aimed at broadening application of this higher wage standard.
POWER clergy leaders declared that the decisive passage of Ballot Question 1 was due, in part, to their innovative and systematic voter engagement work over the past three months.
“We have called and knocked on the doors of nearly 50,000 voters who don’t normally vote in primary elections. We believe that this made the difference” said Rev. Jarrett Kerbel, rector of St. Martin in the Field Episcopal Church, and board co-chair of POWER.
Indeed, among faith-based groups, POWER stood out this election in their pioneering of new voter engagement strategies. Using sophisticated technologies – including the Voter Activation Network (VAN) database and a predictive dialer phone system – as well as old fashioned door knocking and congregational gatherings, POWER congregations targeted those who might not otherwise be engaged in a primary election and would not likely get to the polls if not for a phone call or a knock on the door. POWER also experimented with decentralized voter engagement approaches – training each of its member congregations to form volunteer teams who created voter contact lists, organized phone banking and canvassing sessions and documented results in the VAN – as opposed to the “central command” approached used by many political campaigns.
“POWER is one of the best examples of faith-based groups bringing a pro-working family moral agenda to the ballot box” said Gordon Whitman, Deputy Director of the PICO National Network, the largest networks of faith-based community organizing groups in the country. “Putting good measures on the ballot and turning people out to vote is where people of faith have to go if we are serious about achieving racial and economic justice in our cities and country,” added Whitman.
POWER sees today’s victory on Ballot Question 1 as part of a national movement towards more just wage standards and a counter attack on growing inequality. POWER intends to build on momentum of today’s victory to increase the civic engagement of those who are often left out of the political process.
“We were not only interested in helping push Ballot Question #1 over the finish line – which will, if fully enforced, have direct impact on thousands of workers’ lives – we are also interested in changing how democracy operates in this city” said Rabbi Lauren Grabelle Herrmann, of Kol Tzedek Synagogue in West Philadelphia and a POWER leader.
“We believe that when those on the margins start engaging in the political process, with voting as a start, then we can start shifting the benefits of public policies more towards those disempowered communities” added Grabelle Herrmann.