Business

‘Fight for $15’ intensifies campaign for low-wage workers

The “Fight for $15” movement is broadening its battle plan to help low-wage workers.

Local workers’ rights groups have mapped out a yearlong campaign, planning demonstrations at different work sites on the 15th of every month and distributing informational pamphlets at businesses and in neighborhoods. Their goal is to build public support for a “living wage” of $15 an hour, more than the minimum wage in any state but widely seen by worker advocates as the amount people need to pay for housing, food, and other expenses.

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The first action of the year will take place Thursday, the birthday of civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr., at the Terminal C chapel at Logan Airport, where workers have been protesting low wages paid by subcontractors and are fighting for a union.

“We’re hoping to inspire more workers to step up,” said Russ Davis, executive director of the workers’ rights group Massachusetts Jobs With Justice, a founding member of what has become known as the #WageAction coalition.

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“People need to know that they’re not alone,’’ Davis said. “There’s a strategy, there’s a vision, there’s a possibility of change . . . But we’re also hoping to build public support and awareness that these issues are happening in our communities.”

The movement began as an uprising of New York fast food workers in late 2012, with assistance from unions and labor groups, and spread to other industries, creating a wave of demonstrations across the country. Now the #WageAction coalition, with members from about 50 unions, workers’ rights groups, and immigrant organizations, is thinking more strategically.

Monthly protests will rotate among industries, highlighting the pay and working conditions of airport workers, fast-food employees, home health aides, domestic workers, and taxi drivers, among others.

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The coalition also plans to create a series of online videos and print cards and pamphlets about workers’ rights, wage theft, and information about how to join the movement. The materials, which will be printed in multiple languages, can be discreetly left in tip jars and slipped to workers across counters.

Advocates also plan to take a door-to-door campaign beyond low-income neighborhoods to wealthy areas as well in an attempt to educate people who may employ a nanny or a housecleaner, for instance, about the impact low wages have on people’s lives.

Frankie Cook, a personal care assistant in Dorchester, works full time caring for an autistic client in her home. But $13.38 an hour is not enough for Cook, 28, to support herself and her two children. She gets rental assistance, food stamps, and is applying for help paying for heat, but still has to choose which bills will go unpaid each month. Cook got involved in the “Fight for $15” movement last summer and plans to attend every rally she can.

“It’s a community thing,” she said. “The same way I know $15 an hour will help my household, I’m sure it will help the airport workers as well. I don’t work at the airport, but I know we have similar struggles.”

Organizers hope their efforts will ultimately put pressure on legislators, voters, and employers to raise wages. The needle has started to move slightly over the past few years. More than 20 states are increasing their minimum wage rates this year, the most ever, and several major companies have announced wage hikes for their workforces.

This week, the health insurer Aetna Inc. announced that it was boosting the minimum pay of its employees to $16 an hour.

In Massachusetts, the minimum wage rose to $9 an hour on Jan. 1 and will increase to $11 an hour by 2017, effectively giving a raise to about 20 percent of the workforce, according to the Massachusetts Budget and Policy Center.

In an age when unions are declining, a creative approach like #WageAction’s is necessary to help workers on the bottom rungs of the economy, said Susan Moir, director of the Labor Resource Center at the University of Massachusetts Boston.

The Occupy movement kicked things off, she said, focusing the public’s attention on the issue of growing income inequality. The “Fight for $15” demonstrations followed Occupy’s lead and put a face on the minimum-wage workforce — half of whom are over the age of 25.

Raising wages requires the kind of resources and persistence that #WageAction is putting forth, Moir said. But, she cautioned, “It’s going to take a real cultural change. Cultural change is very slow.”

Katie Johnston can be reached at katie.johnston@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @ktkjohnston.
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