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Essay: Progress Through Perserverance

Posted by Will Rice (will) on Aug 05 2011 at 12:55 PM
ADA Today >>

By Jane O’Grady

Effecting social change, like raising a child, may take a village…but it also takes time.

I am reminded of the time factor as anniversary dates of significant social programs roll around.   July 1 was the anniversary of the implementation of Medicare in 1965.  The Family and Medical Leave Act became effective August 5, 1993. And the current federal minimum wage ($7.25 an hour) went into force July 24, 2009.

These, as well as many other legislative victories, took frustratingly long to accomplish.  Serious debate about government health insurance for the elderly began with President Harry Truman in the 1940’s.  A labor law giving new mothers and fathers some time off from work after the birth of a child and for other important life events suffered two Presidential vetoes before it was signed into law.  And getting the last increase in the federal minimum wage took 10 years!

Although through its general advocacy ADA can claim a role in most of the social progress of the past 64 years, it was particularly prominent in the most recent drive to raise the minimum wage.  And that process illustrates the patient diligence required to bring about significant change.

When Senator Ted Kennedy asked ADA to lead a minimum-wage campaign in 1997, he knew from his many years of legislative experience that we were in for a long struggle.  Over the next several years, ADA was able to pull together an effective coalition of religious, labor, and social welfare organizations; at its height, the ADA Campaign for a Fair Minimum Wage comprised 225 participating organizations, each pledging to make an increase in the federal minimum wage one of its legislative priorities.

Meanwhile, Sen. Kennedy worked the Senate: lobbying his colleagues, introducing stand-alone legislation, and offering minimum wage increase amendments whenever he got a chance.  The fight, which started in 1997, finally ended ten years later with the signing of legislation that raised the rate in three stages, culminating with the boost to $7.25 in 2009.  

Were there frustrations along the way?  You bet.  The opposition of the business community gave the Republicans all the support they needed to fight an increase at every turn.  What finally won the day? Perseverance, smart legislative strategy on the part of Sen. Kennedy and his House and Senate allies, and the pressure that the Campaign for a Fair Minimum Wage was able to generate all around the country,  which succeeded in making an increase in the minimum wage a moral as well as an economic issue.  Hearing, and refuting, the same old anti-minimum wage arguments, year after year, could be infuriating.  But gaining Congressional votes, year by year, gave promise that victory would eventually be ours.

Today many liberals express disappointment with the pace and shape of change accomplished by the Obama Administration.  I share many of that disappointment.  But I also know through personal experience that progressive social policy takes time to initiate, advocate, and accomplish.  (And that it will always be necessary to protect those policies from the forces who oppose it: witness all three of the accomplishments listed above under attack today.)  

So the answer is not to give in, give up or grow cynical.  The answer is to roll up our sleeves and get to work.

Jane O’Grady is the director of ADA’s Campaign for a Fair Minimum Wage, and a member of ADA’s National Board and Executive Committee.