THE DISCOUNT FOUNDATION operated for 38 years as a small private Foundation concerned with large social and economic problems. Discount’s primary goal was to make economic opportunity, the “American Dream” for generations of the poor, including immigrants, a reality for all. President Franklin Roosevelt in 1937, proposing the first national minimum wage law, sought to “end starvation wages” by guaranteeing America’s “men and women a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work.” Nevertheless, today, almost 35% of all Americans, many working at one or more jobs, remain poor.
Since its formation in 1977, Discount supported community organizing groups working to empower low-income and poor urban residents to improve their communities, living conditions and economic opportunities. In the mid-1990s, the Foundation initiated its Making Work Pay program focus, funding efforts to increase wages for the working poor with a strong focus on living and minimum wage organizing and campaigns affect both public policy and private market forces.
In 2009, the Foundation modified its focus establishing its Organizing for Worker Justice program. One assumption of this program was that workplace organizing is a crucial avenue for low-wage workers to achieve greater economic justice, including a living wage and decent, safe and humane working conditions. The Foundation aimed to support collective action on the part of workers through community and faith based organizations, especially those working in collaboration with unions and other types of worker organizations. Such community-labor alliances have proven that they can build sufficient power to secure major economic and other benefits for the poor, including immigrants, low-wage workers, their families and their communities. During periods of economic stress and transition, new and creative responses are needed to react to downward wage pressures and attacks against traditional worker protections. The Foundation believed these efforts are critical to helping foster a fair and just economy.
The future of the labor movement, indeed the future of our country, demands that we bring together the power of both unions and of community and faith-based organizing groups in our common fight for social and economic justice. The union/community collaborations that the Discount Foundation funds in support of worker justice organizing represent some of the most innovative and effective models in the country.
John W. Wilhelm, President, UNITE HERE