The president of the Service Employees International Union, in Boston this week to help plan the next worldwide “Fight for $15” event, singled out local efforts as being “at the vanguard” of the growing movement to raise wages for low-income workers.
What started out just over two years ago as fast-food workers demonstrating for higher wages has spread across industries, largely due to a demonstration in Boston last June that included retail employees, home care providers, airport workers, restaurant servers, and adjunct professors who were all struggling to get by.
The rally showed that many workers face the same issues, “whether they have a PhD or a GED,” SEIU head Mary Kay Henry said in an interview.
Recruiting college students is the latest step in expanding the movement, said Henry, who moderated a panel with low-wage workers at Northeastern University Thursday night. College students are interested in the movement because they are getting ready to enter the job market, Henry said, and they have witnessed the struggles of their part-time professors, who hold more than half of the teaching jobs at US colleges but have lower incomes and fewer job protections than their full-time peers. In Boston, more than 3,000 adjunct professors at six colleges have voted to unionize in the past year and a half.
“For the students, it’s about what kinds of jobs are they graduating into, and linking the fight against the low-wage economy with creating good jobs that people can lead a decent life on,” Henry said. “If we can begin to create an upward pressure on raising wages, it benefits everybody, even workers who are earning $20, $25 [an hour.]”
The next round of “Fight for $15” protests kicks off in Boston on April 14; the following day, rallies in more than 200 cities are set to take place around the globe. Organizers moved up the local demonstration to avoid conflicting with the second anniversary of the Boston Marathon bombings.
The local march will start at Northeastern University, where adjunct professors are in the midst of contract negotiations. It will proceed to a home care company that pays its workers just above or at minimum wage, according to 1199 SEIU, the local health care workers’ branch of the national union, and continue on to the AMC Loews Boston Common movie theater, where the cleaning contractor has been ordered to pay workers more than $50,000 in back wages. Marchers will make a stop at a property management group in Chinatown that has been evicting residents to make way for luxury developments, and end at a nearby McDonald’s.
Much has shifted since the Fight for $15 campaign began. More than 7 million workers have had pay hikes, the SEIU estimates, from state and city minimum wage increases and union negotiations, sometimes as much as a $1 or $2 an hour at once.
Business groups have railed against the effort to raise wages, and Bureau of Labor Statistics economists recently found that while raising wages does not lead to lower employment levels, it does result in a significant dip in the rate of job creation. Still, some major companies, such as Walmart, Target, and the Gap, have started to raise workers’ wages on their own.
“This is not an individual failing of somebody that didn’t go to college and do the right thing. This is an economy that has fractured work, and has created millions of people competing for low-wage jobs,” Henry said. “Employers [are] beginning to understand that this is going to hurt their basic business model if people can’t afford to shop in their stores.”Katie Johnston can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @ktkjohnston.