The demonstrators, numbering nearly 300, marched along the sidewalks of Euclid Avenue as evening rush hour traffic crawled by. Even though most had walked a mile to the event, which supported increasing the minimum wage to $15, many still had pep in their step for the return trip home.
They chanted with conviction: “I believe that we will win!” An African drum accompanied them as left the rally that had been in front of Cleveland State University. Some demonstrators held signs such as: “Poverty-Wage Jobs HOLD CLEVELAND BACK.”
Cleveland was one of more than 200 cities Wednesday where people had rallies, candlelight vigils, engaged in fast-food strikes and other actions as part of the Fight for 15 campaign, which is part of Service Employees International Union.
“This isn’t the end,” said Al Bacon, secretary/treasurer of SEIU District 1199, the rally’s last speaker. “This is a giant step forward.”
In many ways it was. The event was notable because of the number of people who participated locally and because it was the largest national action to date by Fight for 15. The event also stood out because of the cross-section of participants.
Demonstrators had taken different roads to the rally. This could be viewed as a literal statement. The home care workers had begun their march from the SEIU union hall on East 30th Street. The adjunct professors had left from the Cuyahoga Community College Metro campus.
Taking different paths, but ending up in the same place was also symbolic. While some held PhDs and others only GEDs, they all complained of earning less than $15 an hour. The median hourly wage for home care workers is about $9.60, according to Labor Department data. Adjunct professors nationally make about $2,700 per class per semester, according to SEIU. Many adjuncts say that when one considers the non-teaching duties, most of them make less than $15 an hour. The union, which represents many home care workers, is also organizing adjuncts nationally.
In Cleveland, as nationally, this was the first raise-the-minimum-wage rally representing an array of occupations. For many of the demonstrators, this was an indication that the struggle of low-wage workers was not fleeting – something only capable of grabbing headlines with actions — such as one-day strikes by fast-food or Walmart workers — and then being forgotten. For many of them, the scope and size of the tax day actions were proof that struggles of low-wage workers, highlighted with the first fast-food strikes 2 ½ years ago, were expanding and maturing. It was, by most measures, a movement.
“It is significant because it represents workers in general, not just a specific type of worker, coming together,” said Yanela Sims, Northern Ohio coordinator for SEIU Local 1, of Wednesday’s demonstrations. “If workers don’t stand together, we will all crumble.
It is a strong workers’ movement, and it is really exciting for our city.”
Sandra Ellington, a janitor at Cleveland-Hopkins International Airport, said she found a sense of power in marching and rallying with workers from various occupations.
“The working-class Americans are sticking together and they are saying, ‘Enough is enough,’” she said. “No matter who you are, no matter what you do, we are all valued and valuable. It is important that we keep this fight moving forward.”
When Walmart recently announced it would raise its minimum wage to $10 by next year and McDonald’s said it would raise its minimum wage to $9.90 at its corporate-run restaurants this summer, many wondered if such developments would take the steam out of the low-wage workers’ movement. After all, protesters had gotten at least some of what they were looking for.
Harriet Applegate, who heads the North Shore AFL-CIO Federation of Labor, said bigger victories are yet to come. She said it was significant that nearly 300 participated in the Cleveland rally.
“It symbolizes that there is a huge need for people to make a living wage,” she said. “It is long overdue. People can’t live a decent life. It is a terrible thing.
“I think this is the beginning of a wave that will bring about change,” Applegate said of the low-wage workers’ movement.
Three Takeaways from the $15 Minimum Wage Rallies, Fast-food Strikes, etc.
1. The low-wage workers’ movement is expanding in scope – Wednesday’s protests included participants from several occupations, including: adjunct professors, home care workers, child care workers, airport workers, industrial laundry workers, Walmart and other retail workers. College students also participated. In Cleveland, students from CSU, Kent State University, Oberlin College and Tri-C participated.
David Wilder, an art and art history adjunct who teaches at Cuyahoga Community College and John Carroll University, said the efforts of fast food and retail workers for better pay had motivated him to do the same for adjuncts. Wilder said he is helping to organize adjuncts at John Carroll.
He said he is among those pushing to get John Carroll to adopt the Jesuit Just Employment Policy, which among other things, Wilder said calls for “a living wage” and the right to join a union. He said the adjuncts turned in a 200-signature petition to the university Tuesday. John Carroll did not respond to The Plain Dealer’s requests regarding the matter.
2. Opponents of the $15 minimum wage are increasing their efforts – Seeing the impact of many of the low-wage workers’ actions, some groups opposed to raising the minimum wage have increased their efforts. For example, a day before the tax day protests, the Washington, D.C.-based Employment Policies Institute, which opposes unions, launched facesof15.com. The group says the website “chronicles the real stories of small businesses and how they’ve adapted to drastic minimum wage hikes.”
3. Low-wage workers’ protests fuel research – Think tanks, advocacy organizations and universities often release analyses or reports in the days leading up to national low-wage workers’ demonstrations.
Among those recently released is an analysis of government data by the National Employment Law Project, which showed that half of the 10 occupations expected to grow the most by 2022 will have median hourly wages below $12. These jobs include: personal care aides, retail sales clerks, home health aides, food prep and serving workers (including fast food) and janitors and cleaners.
A report by Restaurant Opportunities Centers United found that nearly half the families of full-service restaurant workers are enrolled in one or more public-assistance programs. The reports said these subsidies amount to more than $9.4 billion a year.