64 Million Paid Less than $15 Pledge Massive Protests for Higher Pay at Presidential, VP Debates this Fall
Push to Confront Combined Effects of 400 years of Slavery, Segregation, 40 Years of Union Busting; Ties Deepen Between Racial, Economic Justice Movements
Richmond, Va. – Thousands of underpaid Americans from around the country and across the economy took to the streets of Richmond Saturday, bringing to an emphatic conclusion a two-day convention at which working families fighting for $15 and union rights promised to hold elected officials accountable on Election Day and every day thereafter to build an economy that works for everyone.
The workers held their convention in Richmond – the former capital of the old Confederacy – to highlight the enduring effects of racist policies that are holding back low-paid working families of color today. Four hundred years of slavery and segregation, combined with 40 years of anti-union policies, have had a disastrous effect on tens of millions of working Americans.
“We abolished slavery more than 150 years ago, but its legacy is still felt in economic policies and working conditions that hold back Black and Latino working people across America,” said Sepia Coleman, a home care worker from Memphis, Tennessee. “When you add in decades of attacks on workers who organized unions, you get a devastating result that has left tens of millions of us unable to support our families. We’re all in the same boat now, so we have no choice but to row together and row forcefully.”
Before they took off on their march, people who work in sectors across America’s economy – spanning fast-food, home care, child care, higher education, retail, manufacturing, and agriculture – unanimously passed the “Richmond Resolution,” (see attached for text) vowing to intensify their fight for $15/hour and union rights with massive protests to hit the presidential and vice presidential debates this fall.
Before the vote, a group of fast-food cooks and cashiers from Memphis led the crowd in a chant: “Eyes on ’16, we want $15.”
Working-class voters also resolved to push cities and states throughout the old Confederacy to raise wages, in defiance of powerful interests that have sought to block higher pay across the South. And the Fight for $15 committed to link arms with faith and civil rights leaders nationwide in a wave of rallies at state capitols on Sept. 12 to call on lawmakers from state senators to governors to advance moral policies like a living wage, voting rights and criminal justice reform.
“Centuries of racism ingrained in the structure of our society and 40 years of corporate attacks on working families fighting for a decent life have left America without a strong middle-class, but the workers of the Fight for $15 are starting to turn the tide,” said Mary Kay Henry, president of the Service Employees International Union, which has supported the Fight for $15 since it launched in New York City in November of 2012. “This year, underpaid Americans will show elected leaders in every state in America that they are a voting bloc that cannot be ignored and will not be denied.”
The convention marked the first time working people from across the economy and around the country who are fighting for $15 and union rights met as a group. Previously, fast-food workers held conventions in Chicago and Detroit, but the Richmond gathering marked a milestone in the expansion of the nearly four-year-old movement to sectors beyond fast-food.
“People who work for fast food corporations like McDonald’s led the way, but the Fight for $15 is now for everyone,” said Derick Smith, adjunct faculty at North Carolina A&T State University. “By joining together and passing the Richmond Resolution, we’re saying loud and clear that we will hold our nation’s elected leaders and deep-pocketed corporations accountable to cooks, cashiers, home care workers, and all 64 million of us paid less than $15.”
In a hall draped with Fight for $15 banners from dozens and dozens of cities, underscoring how widespread the movement has become, fast-food cooks, home care and child care workers, airport workers, and others celebrated a spate of victories for the movement, including winning raises for nearly 20 million workers and leading the Democratic Party to adopt a $15 federal minimum wage as part of its platform.
At one point, workers from more than a dozen industries, including auto manufacturing, airports, wireless communications, nail salons, home care, child care, health care, security, janitorial, higher education, fast food and retail stood on stage together, underscoring their commitment to fight for $15 and union rights.
The Rev. William Barber II, an architect of the Moral Mondays movement in North Carolina and founder of the social justice group Repairers of the Breach, kicked off day two of the convention Saturday by leading a rousing rendition of “Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Around.” He called more than 60 pastors onto the stage, in a prelude to a morning clergy summit hosted by Repairers of the Breach to mobilize faith leaders to partner with underpaid people in their congregations in the Fight for $15 to raise wage floors and overcome barriers to opportunity for working people.
Day two of the convention also included a moving tribute to Michael Brown, Akai Gurley, Philando Castile, Rekia Boyd and dozens of other black men and women killed by police in recent years. Hundreds of workers walked silently through the hall holding signs bearing the images and names of those killed, prompting thousands to call in unison: “Black Lives Matter.”
The march—led by Barber and members of the Fight for $15 National Organizing Committee, ending at a statue of Robert E. Lee—brought the convention to a dynamic conclusion. Addressing thousands of workers in a keynote address in front of the statue, Barber stressed the linked fates of movements for living wages and civil rights.
“When African-Americans served in Southern legislatures for the first time, they built a movement with poor whites and re-wrote constitutions throughout the region to ban work without pay,” Barber said. “Every step forward in our nation’s history – every stride toward a more perfect union – has been the result of people coming together, pushed by a moral movement towards higher ground. It took us 400 years from slavery to the present to reach $7.25, but that was far too long, and we can’t wait. We have to stand together and fight together now for $15 and union rights.”
Also Saturday, a group of Richmond residents who work at a local McDonald’s went on strike, demanding $15 and union rights. At an early morning protest in front of a downtown McDonald’s, hundreds of cooks and cashiers chanted, “Put Some Respect on My Check,” and “We Believe That We Will Win.”
Working people’s focus on the connections between racism and an economy increasingly out of balance is motivated in part by recent decisions made by predominantly white legislatures in Alabama and Missouri. These decisions steal away hard-fought raises for the predominantly black workforces in Birmingham, Kansas City and St. Louis, and led Alabama fast-food workers to enter a federal civil rights suit seeking to overturn the state’s preemption of an increase approved by Birmingham’s predominantly black city council.
“When white legislators in Missouri stole the minimum wage increase we fought so hard for in Kansas City, they took food right out of my children’s mouths – and did the same to thousands of Black working families like ours,” said Terrence Wise, a McDonalds worker from Kansas City, who is a member of the Fight for $15’s National Organizing Committee. “But we won’t let them steal our hope for a better life. I was proud to cast my vote for the Richmond Resolution to raise wages throughout cities and states across the South. Together we are standing up, fighting back, and we won’t stop until we win $15 and union rights for everyone, everywhere.”
The debate strikes this fall will build off of similar protests, from Milwaukee to Miami, last winter, which forced White House hopefuls to address the demands of working-class voters head on. On five occasions in the debates, candidates were pressed by moderators to respond to families in the Fight for $15 movement.
“Candidates who want our vote need to resolve the crisis of low pay in our country,” said Dawn O’Neal, a child care worker from Atlanta, Georgia who is paid $8.50/hour despite 17 years on the job. “There are tens of millions of working parents around the country who are paid less than $15/hour, and politicians and elected officials have the power to change this. This year, we’re joining together to say that, if you stand with us on the need for $15/hour, we’ll stand with you.”
Fast food workers are coming together all over the country to fight for $15 an hour and the right to form a union without retaliation. We work for corporations that are making tremendous profits, but do not pay employees enough to support our families and to cover basic needs like food, health care, rent and transportation.