Blacks, Low-Wage Employment and the Fight for $15

Blacks, Low-Wage Employment and the Fight for $15

[OP-ED] Half of all African American workers make less than $15 per hour, and many are in the food service industry, but it's time to support a significant hike in the minimum wage

by Marc Bayard, October 23, 2015

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Blacks, Low-Wage Employment and the Fight for $15

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Earlier this month Terrence Wise, a 36-year old second-generation African American fast-food worker, introduced President Barack Obama at the White House Summit on Worker Voice. Wise, a native of Kansas City, Missouri and father of three, has worked in the fast food industry for 20 years. Currently, he works at both McDonalds and Burger King — seven days a week. 

He is not “Lovin’ It” and he does not “Have It His Way” at either of these low-wage establishments. Instead, as he told President Obama about his family life, “We work hard every day, but wages are so low we skip meals.”

“We’ve been homeless, and with two jobs, I barely see my daughters. Things didn’t improve until I joined with fast-food workers across America to stand up and build a movement for $15 and create other opportunities to make our voice heard by joining a union.”

Too many Black workers find themselves in the exact same plight as Wise. They are young, Black, and majority female.

They are also stuck in low-wage jobs. 

Forty-two percent of all U.S. workers make less than $15 per hour. This is shocking but even more shocking is that more than half of African American workers make less than $15 an hour, according to the National Employment Law Project (NELP). If one delves even deeper you discover that Black women are even more ensnared in this low-wage trap, as Linda Burnham, Research Director at the National Domestic Workers Alliance (NDWA), points out. Black women are disproportionally employed in low-wage and service sector jobs that lock them together with their families and communities in cycles of economic distress with widespread social consequences. 

This cycle has to be broken not just for Black workers to rise but also for their communities to thrive.

The Fight for $15, a national campaign to increase wages for some of the nation’s lowest paid workers in the food service industry, wants to change this. The campaign, started in 2012 by fast-food workers who want a $15-an-hour minimum wage, has begun to create a pathway for a different vision of economic growth. It has won some key victories in cities from Seattle and San Francisco to New York. 

As economic justice is interwoven into so many historic civil rights and now Black Lives Matter conversations, an exciting fledging dialogue is emerging, imagining what could happen if a campaign such as Fight for $15 fully embraced a racial equity lens and embedded in its strong pro-union messaging a greater overall concern for progressive Black struggles. 

Very recent polling done by NELP helps to enhance this point, as 87 percent of low-wage Black workers approve of labor unions.  This was the highest of all surveyed groups (almost 20 points higher than whites). 

This energy needs to be harnessed. But Black workers need to have more than just a seat at the table.  They need to help set the agenda and priorities for the work.

The Fight for $15 has the opportunity to be a part of a much larger civil rights agenda and in certain cites they have begun heeding the call. Racial and economic justice has always been two sides of the same coin in the Black community. In South Carolina, where union membership rates are at anemic levels (2.2 percent), Black fast-food activists worked closely with the late Rev. Clementa Pinckney in Charleston to fight for their wages and dignity. 

The Moral Mondays Movement of North Carolina has embraced the Fight for $15 as an authentic vehicle and voice of Black workers. And, of course, fast-food workers that marched on the streets of Ferguson, Missouri, last year knew that when they were protesting they were fighting for a better way of life and for the value of their lives to matter on and off the job. 

Valerie Wilson, Director of the Program on Race, Ethnicity and the Economy at the

Economic Policy Institute (EPI), has some notions as to why this convergence is occurring now and how it can be further harnessed.  

“I think the fact that wages have not grown for the vast majority of workers, regardless of race, in over 35 years makes this an issue with broad-based support. But for Black workers in particular, there’s the issue of raising wages and then there’s the issue of equal pay for equal work,” Wilson said.

Kendall Fells, national organizing director of Fight for $15, recently said at a forum in New York, “There is a natural intersection between what’s happening with Black Lives Matter and the Fight for $15. If we take advantage of this and link these movements together, we have opportunities to create more success in years to come.” 

This is the foundation we have to build on, but this foundation only works if Black workers are fully acknowledged for their contributions in this movement and are given the space they deserve to move it in new and vibrant directions. I look forward to a Black-led, low-wage workers movement that will benefit all workers. That would be something I would order off of the new all-day breakfast menu.

Marc Bayard is an Associate Fellow and the Director of the Black Worker Initiative at the Institute for Policy Studies, and a Public Voices fellow of The OpEd Project. Follow him on Twitter @MarcBayard.

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