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The Boston Globe

Opinion

The Podium

The fight for fair pay

Hundreds of low-wage workers demonstrate in Boston for higher wages. (Essdras M. Suarez Photo/ Globe Staff)

Hundreds of low-wage workers demonstrate in Boston for higher wages. (Essdras M. Suarez Photo/ Globe Staff)

On Thursday in Boston you may have seen hundreds of people you interact with every single day, but rarely notice, taking to the streets to demand something they should not have to ask for: Simple fairness.

No American working 40, 50, or 60 hours a week should be forced to choose between groceries and heating oil, or go looking for a second job or even a third job to pile on top of their first job just so they can pay the rent.

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Yet for millions of our neighbors, that is the everyday reality in a country where income disparity isn’t arguably the most important issue of the day, but a threat. It’s a threat to the ideas that founded this country and to our continued belief in an America where anyone willing to work hard can rise up — and take his or her family with them.

This isn’t just about the fast food workers and janitors, Walmart greeters and airport cleaners who took to the streets last week. The galloping trend of more-work for less-pay is hitting the adjunct professors who educate our children and the homecare workers who tend to our parents. The fight for fair pay was pegged as the key to ending poverty by LBJ 50 years ago — and for a while, we were winning, closing the gap between rich and poor and allowing working class families to believe they could earn enough to save money, to send kids to college, to live the American Dream.

That is not just slipping away — it is rushing away.

Since the economic recovery began in 2009, 95 percent of economic gains have gone to the top 1 percent, according to former Labor Secretary Robert Reich. And now more than 50 percent of all income goes to 10 percent of the workforce, according to a study by the University of California at Berkeley.

At the same time, working people are often earning less than ever before. In Massachusetts, a minimum wage worker earns $5,400 less annually today than in 1968, when adjusted for inflation. Pile on top of this the fact that college costs have risen 40 percent, and childcare and healthcare costs 20 percent over the last nine years, according to a Pew Research study.

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The statistics give the bones of the story, but the people you heard in Copley Square on Thursday flesh it out.

People like Lucia Benitez, a home care agency worker from Dorchester who works full time providing essential care to four different clients at $10 an hour. Or Darius Cephas, a 23-year-old McDonalds’ worker in Boston who makes $8 an hour, helps to support a disabled mother, and has trained his body to live on one meal a day. These are hardworking people, like Radouane Fadel who cleans airplane cabins and transports wheelchair passengers for $8 an hour.

The keys to a better life for Lucia and Darius and Radouane aren’t hard to identify: Raise the minimum wage; don’t just “allow” but actually encourage these people to organize into unions; create standards for living wages; create a fair tax system that isn’t levying the same rates on a billionaire as his secretary. There’s a phrase for all this: Create a level playing field.

These people aren’t statistics. They are people you know. You thank them for taking care of your mother or father or for taking you to the airport. You pay them at the checkout counter or you take notes in their classroom. They work hard and do a good job for less and less of a share of the economic pie. You know the way they are being paid and treated is not fair.

Income disparity is now quite possibly the most pressing issue we face as a nation. We will either stop the chasm from widening, or watch America turn into two separate nations – one with a big bottom, and a small top, and no more middle.

The workers you saw demonstrating in Copley Square — and at Walmart in Worcester and at McDonald’s in Springfield — are part of a rising wave. Their supporters include Pope Francis and President Obama and, we hope, you. So take a minute to acknowledge these individuals. Stand up for them. They work hard. Together, we can make sure they finally start getting paid for it.

Veronica Turner is executive vice president of 1199SEIU United Healthcare Workers East in Massachusetts and secretary of the SEIU African American National Board.

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