Copyright © 2015 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved
Morning demonstration at McDonald’s (photo: Charles Nelson)
March arrives from City College
Workers stand tall as backdrop for rally speakers
MeCHA contingent shows Latino solidarity
Drummers added energy to the speeches, but sometimes made them hard to hear
Simone Fillmore (center)
Joanne Apuro Hester
While the 12 remaining Republican presidential candidates were debating in Milwaukee on November 10 over which one could do more to screw America’s working people and make our tax system even more favorable to the rich than it already is, millions of Americans were taking to the streets in over 200 cities to demand an increase in the federal minimum wage from $7.25 an hour to $15. The three-year-old “Fight for 15” movement organized a nationwide day of action November 10 that included several protests in San Diego, beginning with a march targeting fast-food outlets and ending with a noisy, inspiring rally at the San Diego Civic Center.
The “Fight for 15” movement began in 2012 with a one-day strike against McDonald’s, Jack in the Box, Wendy’s and other national fast-food chains. According to “Fight for 15” advocates, the fast-food industry has built its economic success on the relentless underpayment and exploitation of its workforce. Now that it’s a major sector of the economy, activists say, it needs to give back a fair share of its profits to its workers — especially now that, contrary to the public image of fast-food workers as primarily young people on their first job, learning how to function in the work world, an increasing number of them are mature adults trying to raise families on the pittances fast-food outlets pay.
Simone Fillmore, whose impassioned words led off the evening rally at the Civic Center, is one such person. “I am a mother, a wife and a fast-food worker,” she told the crowd of over 500. “I’m tired of being held back from things I can’t afford. We are tired of being targeted for being poor and Black. My life should be respected as much as a white person’s. … Families like mine cannot survive on the poverty wages the big corporations pay. … We deserve to live our daily lives without public assistance.”
LaTanya Klein, whose speech — punctuated by drums and other noisemakers from the union representatives and others stationed behind the speakers — was even more fiery than Fillmore’s, represented another chronically underpaid group of workers the “Fight for 15” movement has mobilized: in-home caregivers. “My primary client is my husband, a Navy veteran with severe eye problems and impaired mobility,” Klein said. “Is it fair that our veterans are not getting quality care? Is it fair that home care workers make less than $10 an hour, with few benefits and no sick leave? Our clients are mostly poor people, and government is trying to balance the budget on their backs. That’s why we need to join the Fight for $15.”
Though three elected officials — California Assembly Speaker Toni Atkins, Assemblymember (and former labor leader) Lorena Gonzalez, and San Diego City Councilmember David Alvarez — addressed the rally, the focus was on ordinary workers and labor organizers. One African-American man, who didn’t identify himself when he spoke, said he was there “to represent different faith traditions” and had participated in one of the early “Fight for 15” events in City Heights.
“Some people said our movement wouldn’t make it, that we would lose hope, our movement would not last,” he said. “Today our movement is standing tall. We are standing for $15 an hour and the right to form unions. We are tired of people getting up early, going to bed late, working more than one job and still not having enough to pay rent. … We are saying to McDonald’s and all the corporate giants making record profits off our backs that we will win!”
This speaker mentioned some of the other cities and states that have raised the minimum wage to $15 per hour. The same day as the nationwide mobilization, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo signed a bill raising that state’s minimum wage to $15. It’s also passed in Los Angeles and Seattle. But in the November 3 election, after the city council in Portland, Maine voted to raise the city’s minimum wage to $10.10 per hour, a voter initiative to take it to $15 lost. In Tacoma, Seattle’s neighboring city, dueling initiatives to raise it to $12 and $15 both passed, but because the one for $12 got more votes, it’s the one that will take effect. California’s statewide minimum is scheduled to go up at the end of 2015, but only to $10 per hour.
In San Diego, thanks largely to opposition from the business community and the Republican Party, workers can’t even get the minimum wage up to $12. City Councilmember Todd Gloria took his minimum-wage proposal down from over $13 an hour to $11.50 and got it through the Council on a party-line vote, with six Democrats in favor and three Republicans opposed. Republican Mayor Kevin Faulconer vetoed it, but the six Democrats were able to override. (Since then one of the Democrats has left the Council and been replaced by a Republican.)
But the business community didn’t accept even the increase to $11.50. Instead, the San Diego Regional Chamber of Commerce (currently headed by former Mayor Jerry Sanders, another Republican) and other business groups spent lavishly to get a measure on the June 2016 ballot reversing the hike in the minimum wage. So San Diegans will have a chance to vote on whether the city’s minimum wage should be raised — and given what happened the last time the business community put an issue before voters, when they spent huge sums of money to propagandize against the Barrio Logan community plan and won an overwhelming victory against it, the odds would seem to be against minimum-wage advocates making the former Council’s action stick.
When former Mayor Sanders spoke at the Chamber’s October 2014 press conference announcing their success in stalling the minimum-wage increase and putting it before voters, he made one of the most common arguments against raising the minimum wage: that it would threaten the survival of small businesses. “Many small business owners would have joined me here today, but decided not to,” he said. “Some have come forward in the past but have suffered through their businesses being picketed and their livelihoods being threatened because they stood up and expressed concern. It’s time for the City Council to fight for the city’s job creators, or at minimum, listen to them.” Indeed, Sanders asked the City Council to repeal the minimum-wage increase themselves instead of putting it before voters.
Councilmember Gloria, who was the Council’s president when the minimum-wage increase passed but was later removed from that office in a palace coup engineered by the Council’s Republican members in association with Democratic Councilmember Sherri Lightner, was incensed at the delay in the minimum wage increase. Workers earning the minimum wage “will not have additional help to keep a roof over their heads and put food on the table for themselves and for their children,” he said. Gloria also savaged the hypocrisy of the Chamber and other business leaders. “It is surprising that the very same people who led the (referendum) effort and advocated for placing this on the ballot are now asking this council to rescind and to not let the voters decide,” Gloria said. “That is very disappointing.”
(Source for the last two paragraphs: http://www.kpbs.org/news/2014/oct/20/city-council-decide-whats-next-san-diego-minimum-w/.)
Raising the minimum wage remains controversial among economists. Depending on their overall political orientation, economists differ as much as elected officials do about whether minimum-wage increases are good or bad for the economy. The November 10 edition of the PBS NewsHour featured Alan Kreuger, former chair of the federal Council of Economic Advisors under President Obama, arguing that the economy could sustain a raise in the minimum wage to $12 per hour, but $15 would be too much.
“An increase to $12 at the national level [from $7.25] is a considerable increase,” Kreuger said. “It would put the minimum wage above where it’s been in the history of the United States. And if you move it up to $15 an hour nationwide, I’m concerned that that is well beyond what we’ve seen in past research. And if I were advising the President today, I would say I think that’s a risky level.” (Source: http://www.pbs.org/newshour/?post_type=bb&p=162159.)
The candidates running to succeed Obama as President in 2016 break on the issue pretty much as you’d expect them to. Insurgent Democrats Bernie Sanders and Martin O’Malley both favor $15 per hour. In fact, Sanders was shown on the same NewsHour as Alan Kreuger thanking the “Fight for 15” movement for raising the issue. “They have had the impact of moving Los Angeles, San Francisco and other cities to raise the minimum wage.” Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton takes the same position as Alan Kreuger — she’d support $12 per hour but not $15.
No Republican Presidential candidate favors raising the minimum wage at all. Indeed, one early Republican Presidential candidate who has since left the race, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, publicly questioned whether minimum-wage laws should exist at all. In two different comments, Walker said, “I’m not going to repeal it but … I don’t think it serves a purpose. … The Left claims that they’re for American workers and they’ve just got just really lame ideas — things like the minimum wage.” (Source: http://www.msnbc.com/rachel-maddow-show/walker-dismisses-minimum-wage-lame.)
The economic arguments for and against raising the minimum wage are relatively simple. Opponents say a higher minimum will discourage businesses from hiring new workers and will lead them to cut the hours of people they already have. Supporters say a higher minimum will actually benefit businesses because higher wages mean that people have more money to spend, which will create new customers, stimulate the economy and thus allow businesses to make more money.
But the people who turned out for the “Fight for $15” actions weren’t concerned about economic theories or dueling studies and statistics about what a higher minimum wage would accomplish. They turned out because many of them are workers making minimum wage themselves and are tired of the day-to-day struggle involved in attempting to live on it. “How can you pay people below what they’re worth?” asked African-American activist and minister LaShayne Harris. “Fifteen dollars is important, but it’s also important to build a progressive San Diego.”
The last speaker, Joanne Apuro Hester, national president of the Asian-American Political Alliance and a union organizer for home-care workers, said, “Home-care workers are mostly women and people of color, and they make one of the lowest wages. About 50 percent of African-Americans and 60 percent of Latino workers are paid less than $15 an hour. We join all workers in this effort. We must win, not just for home-care workers but all low-paid workers in this country.”