by MARK GABRISH CONLAN
Copyright © 2015 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved
Teachers and Students United
Rev. Cornelius Bowser and Mark Jones
Rallying the Crowd
United Domestic Workers
Clapper and Fist in the Air
Lyrical Groove hip-hop band opened the program
In All Languages
Fight for $15 for All
Richard Barrera (center)
Rev. Beth Hansen (center)
Taking It to the Streets
Reclaiming SDSU for Justice
April 15, 2015 was more than just the day federal and state income taxes were due. A nationwide mobilization bringing together labor unions, faith-based groups, civil-rights organizations for people of color, and student and teacher groups staged actions in 230 U.S. cities to highlight the growing inequality of wealth and income in this country and propose a $15 per hour minimum wage as one part of a solution. Various events were held throughout San Diego, including an informal march through North Park at 7:30 a.m., but the big rally and march were scheduled for 4 p.m. at the vast plaza that serves as the entrance to San Diego State University (SDSU).
Organizers of the SDSU event put together an unusual rally program. Instead of inviting elected officials and prominent community leaders, they used ordinary workers to tell their tales of how hard it is to live on today’s wages. Richard Barrera, secretary-treasurer of the San Diego and Imperial Counties Labor Federation, led off the program, but he was virtually the only traditional “community leader” on it.
Barrera explained that the “Fight for 15” movement being pushed at the rally began with the heroic struggles of workers at fast-food restaurants, many of whom lost income and put their jobs at risk by picketing their employers during business hours demanding minimum-wage increases. “These courageous fast-food workers are now joined by the United Domestic Workers (UDW), United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW), janitors, laborers, construction workers and people all over the labor movement. Our message — the fight for a living wage and to organize and join a union — is a struggle the public supports.” Barrera called the “Fight for 15” movement “the rebirth of the labor movement, the middle class and democracy.”
“All my life, I thought if I worked hard I’d get what I worked for,” said Sarah Martin, adjunct professor of English at San Diego City College. “I went to college, got a master’s degree and accumulated $60,000 in student loans, but there just aren’t that many jobs for teachers.” Martin said that 25 percent of adjunct professors — who not only get paid considerably less per class unit they teach but don’t have tenure or any other guarantees of job security — “are enrolled in at least one public-assistance program.”
Another professor, Alberto Macias, said he has to have three jobs to make ends meet: a part-time lecturer at SDSU, an adjunct at City College and a staff position at the Centro Cultural de la Raza in Balboa Park. He said his pay at SDSU is $63 per hour — but only for 10 hours per month, no matter how much time he actually puts in at his job. He linked his own struggle to the decline of the percentage of American workers in unions, which was 20 percent 20 years ago and is now just 11 percent. “The union jobs have left the country,” he said.
According to Macias, universities are doing major cost-shifting that’s harming both teachers and students. “More universities and colleges are taxing students with the bill for their education,” he explained. “Education should not be for sale. It’s a fundamental right. Especially in the U.S., with the greatest accumulation of wealth in the world, education should be free.” Macias said the U.S. could easily afford to fund a college education for all students who could benefit from one if it cut back its defense budget and abandoned its imperialist agenda overseas.
Macias was followed by Jeanette Corona, an SDSU senior who talked about her own struggles to survive and stay in school. “We need to raise wages, roll back fees and end student poverty,” she said. “I’ve struggled with my housing. I’ve had to manage my bank account very carefully because I don’t know how I’m going to get food the next day. I’ve been told it’s all my fault, that I should just take out another student loan. I don’t want another loan; I want everyone who’s been humiliated and shushed to stand up. Education is a right, not a privilege.”
“I’m 22 years old, an undocumented immigrant, Chicano and Queer,” said another SDSU student, Jesus Daniel Mandel Carvajal. “The issue is larger than us. Students are exploited daily and have to take one, two, even three low-wage jobs to survive. I don’t just want to survive; I want to thrive.” Carvajal said he spoke for “folks who don’t have access to health care and have to take pill after pill to cope with their headaches, heartaches and soulaches; folks who can’t afford good food and have to resort to 99-cent noodles. We must hold this university and others like it accountable to providing job protections and living wages.”
The program also featured people in more traditional “working-class” jobs, including janitors Ricardo Cortez and Rosa Lopez. “I live paycheck by paycheck, and that’s not making it for me,” said Cortez, a member of the Service Employees’ International Union (SEIU). “We as union members need to stand up and fight.”
“Everyone who works hard deserves to make a good wage and be treated with respect,” said Lopez, who like Cortez is a janitor represented by SEIU. “I work 365 days a year. I can’t afford to miss a day. I have to decide what bills to pay. I go to school, work seven days a week and take care of my family. That makes this work really hard.”
Contrary to the stereotype many people have that the only workers making minimum wage are young people just entering the labor force, the rally presented single parents — both women and men — who are trying to support their families on minimum-wage jobs.
“I have three children, and the money I make is just not enough,” said hotel worker Joanne Corona. “It’s a very hard, difficult job. They pay us every two weeks and give us barely enough to make the rent. We still have other bills, including gas, food and clothes. Our children ask for recreation that we can’t afford to give them. I am a single mother because the Border Patrol assassinated my husband. Sometimes I have to leave my children alone at home because I can’t afford day care. That’s why I’m in unity with you. We need a dignified salary because it is a heavy workload.”
“I’m a single dad with three children,” said Armando Teyes. “I’m a veteran. Many of us have been deployed and come back unemployed and homeless. We are protecting our rights in this community. Many veterans may not know it’s important to continue the fight.”
Among the most aggressive supporters of “Fight for 15” are the in-home caregivers for people with disabilities. They are represented by the United Domestic Workers (UDW), a strong participant in the “Fight for 15” coalition. [Full disclosure: this author is an in-home caregiver under the public In-Home Supportive Services (IHSS) program and makes $9.85 per hour taking care of three clients.]
“I’ve been a proud member of the union since 2012,” said Victoria Lara. “Before that I was a food worker, so this fight really hits home for me. You work hard and are paid so little because they can get away with it. I get $9.85 per hour for three clients, including a quadraplegic. Don’t we all deserve dignity? Yes, we do. Today I am proud to stand with all workers. We will tell the corporate CEO’s, lawmakers and university officials we will continue to fight for a union for all workers.”
Doug Moore, executive director of the San Diego local of the UDW, also spoke. “Home-care providers make an average of $10 per hour,” he explained. “We’ve been in negotiations with the County of San Diego for two years for us to get a 25-cent raise. Rallies are good, but we need to make broad changes that will take control of this country and take our democracy back.”
Mark Jones, president of the Black Students’ Coalition at SDSU, made the connection between Martin Luther King’s well-known commitment to civil rights for African-Americans and his much less-known work for economic equality and labor rights. (When King was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee in April 1968, he was there to support a strike by municipal garbage workers against the city.) “As Martin Luther King realized, you cannot have social justice without economic justice,” Jones said. “Social and economic justice are the same thing to me.”
The faith community was represented by Reverend Beth Hansen of the Interfaith Committee for Worker Justice (IFCWJ) and Pastor Cornelius Bowser of Charity Apostolic Church in Santee. “You are not alone,” said Rev. Hansen. “Faith communities stand with you. Clergy stand with you. We are fighting together because this is a struggle for all of us. This is a wave that will not stop because it is a struggle for justice. The stories we’ve told today are accounts of the battle for justice. Everyone who works should be able to live with dignity. No one should be forced to live in their cars.” Rev. Hansen said she’d already committed civil disobedience last September to awaken the consciences of corporate officials, and promised she’d do more.
“In 19 years as a pastor, I’ve seen people doing two or three jobs and not being able to participate in the community,” said Rev. Bowser. “A low-wage worker is like a man in water up to his nose. If anything happens, they will drown. I’m proud to be with all of you to stand and fight for $15. Low-wage jobs and irregular work schedules hurt our families. Parents can’t participate in their children’s lives. In my church I have a parent of two children who works at a fast-food restaurant, and after nine years she still makes barely more than minimum wage. She needs a roommate to survive.”
After Carvajal’s presentation — which he billed as a “poem/speech” — the organizers led the crowd on a march through the SDSU campus and onto the streets. The mood was determined, and the sight of wave after wave of people — many of them dressed in purple, blue, green or red shirts with the logos of the organizations they were in — pouring through SDSU’s hallways and under arches emblazoned with the names of 1-percenters who’d donated to the university was inspiring. After the march toured the campus, it hit College Avenue and poured into the streets. Though attendance at the 4 p.m. start of the rally had been sparse, enough people joined it in progress that by the time the group was ready to march, over 2,000 people were on hand to support a $15 per hour minimum wage and basic justice for working people.