Naomi Beeman didn’t protest at Theis Park in midtown Kansas City Tuesday evening at a rally for better pay and unionization.
The adjunct teacher was at her class at Park University. She believes walking out would hurt her students.
“I’ve never been much of an activist,” she said. “But it’s hard to stay in a career with no job security and a lot of uncompensated work.”
Across the country, the now-familiar call for “$15 and union” by fast-food and other low-wage workers is being joined by adjunct teachers who want “$15,000 per class.”
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There’s no question that Beeman’s heart will be with fellow adjuncts at today’s rally in Kansas City, which is just one of about 200 events, dubbed $15 on 4/15, planned in cities nationwide.
Planners billed today as the “biggest-ever mobilization of underpaid workers.” Union organizers, low-wage workers in restaurants, health care and higher education, and their social justice advocates joined in walk-outs, protests and rallies.
Six events were planned in Kansas City, including strike lines at two McDonald’s restaurants and a march from Theis Park, between the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art and the University of Missouri-Kansas City, to the campus.
The rally location is no accident. From the onset of the wage movement in 2012, the national wage campaign has spread to include educators who want the power of collective bargaining for adjuncts. Many adjuncts earn near minimum-wage pay, despite holding Ph.D.s and teaching multiple college-level courses.
Beeman said her husband, who has a full-time university teaching job, makes $50,000 a year. She said she teaches as many classes as he does, and sometimes more, but “I usually make between $12,000 and $15,000 a year, without benefits.”
Part-time, non-tenured teachers like her, Beeman said, need collective bargaining to improve their lot — “otherwise, there’s no pressure on the schools.”
The union-backed coalitions staging today’s events are energized by recent raises announced by McDonald’s at its corporate-owned restaurants, by Wal-Mart and by other retailers. The wage gains, they say, are evidence that their protests are making a difference.
“People thought we were crazy to call for $15 an hour, but all across the country, cities, states and employers are raising wages significantly because of the stand we are taking,” said Alvin Major, a KFC employee who took part in the first New York City protest two and a half years ago.
But employer-backed organizations say recent raises are a result of the free market at work, not worker protests. In Kansas City and around the country, job creation in the last year has reduced the ranks of unemployed. With fewer job seekers to choose from, some employers are raising pay offers to entice better employees.
Conservative politicians, business-backed think tanks and professional organizations representing business and industry say the free market is the only force that should set wages — not government minimum-wage mandates. And they fight collective bargaining.
Organized labor, particularly the Service Employees International Union and the United Food and Commercial Workers Union, believes that better pay and working conditions for the protesting workers won’t happen without a strong collective voice.
The percentage of U.S. workers represented by collective bargaining has shrunk to about 7 percent of the private workforce, and unions say that’s the reason employers hold sway over compensation.
After McDonald’s said earlier this month that it would raise pay in its corporate-owned restaurants, Kendall Fells, organizing director of Fast Food Forward, said the “move happened for one reason — because workers joined together and went on strike.”
As the national presidential campaign gathers steam, the minimum wage and collective bargaining fight is expected to intensify along with demands for presidential candidates to clarify their positions. Polls indicate that a majority of Americans favor increasing the minimum wage.
Democrat Hillary Clinton, who announced her long-expected campaign on Sunday, is likely to support a higher minimum but hasn’t yet specified a goal. Republican Marco Rubio, also an announced candidate, said in January that he favored more than $10.10 an hour but hasn’t made a specific commitment since then.
But Rubio and other Republicans are likely to face tough primary competition from more challengers like Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, who fought public teachers’ unions and wage increases in his state.
Add in minimum wage initiatives that are sweeping across the country, entwined in some cases with the “black lives matter” campaigns, and the low-wage issue is not going to fade away.
The Berkeley Center for Labor Research and Education at the University of California got into the fray this month with a study that focused on low-wage workers who rely on taxpayer-funded public help for the poor. Depending on occupation, one-fourth to one-half of low-wage workers receive public assistance, and that effectively subsidizes McDonald’s, Wendy’s and even mom-and-pop businesses, the report said.
“We’re not asking the government for a minimum wage,” said LaToya Caldwell, a Wendy’s employee in Kansas City for nearly eight years. “We’re asking billion-dollar companies for a raise.”
Caldwell makes $7.50 an hour, which is more than the federal minimum of $7.35 because state law in Missouri periodically adjusts the minimum to reflect inflation. She said she had been a manager at Wendy’s earning $9.50 an hour, but lost the management job after she returned from an unpaid maternity leave.
She said she now works at least 40 hours a week — more hours than many low-wage workers get — but works six days a week with only Tuesdays off. Still, she says she’s unable to support her family and has suffered multiple months of cutoffs to her water and electricity because she fell behind on her bills.
A report issued last week by the Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland gave some credence to Caldwell’s inability to make ends meet. It noted that the share of overall U.S. income that goes to workers has fallen to record lows while corporate profits have soared.
Ken Jacobs, a living-wage advocate and chairman of the liberal Berkeley center that reported on taxpayer subsidies, noted that from 2003 to 2013 wages stayed flat or shrank for the bottom 70 percent of U.S. workers.
The Berkeley report drew quick criticism from the Employment Policies Foundation, a research group that generally supports employer interests. The foundation has issued a report charging that higher wage floors set in Oakland and San Francisco have eliminated jobs or workers’ hours.
Michael Saltsman, research director at the foundation, said, “Many low-margin employers don’t have a customer base that will pay retail prices high enough to make a higher starting wage a reality.”
Saltsman said large employers such as Gap, Wal-Mart, Target and TJ Maxx may be able to raise entry-level wages by responding to market conditions, but that “does not mean that every other business is also able to raise prices sufficiently to cover the cost of a minimum wage hike.”
Furthermore, corporate advocates such as Saltsman assert, low-wage jobs are paying low-skill workers what they’re worth. They argue that such work is only dead-end if the worker stays in it.
Other organizations nonetheless support raising entry-level wages. The National Employment Law Project, a worker-advocacy group, notes that among the 10 occupations with the highest projected job growth by 2022, five pay median hourly wages under $12.
“The idea that low-paid service jobs are only a stepping stone for teenagers or young people starting out in the workforce is plainly wrong,” said Irene Tung, senior policy researcher at the project. “Many people are spending decades working in jobs that pay too little to survive.”
Events in Kansas City
Stand Up KC organizers have planned these activities for today:
6:30 a.m.: Strike line at McDonalds, 6406 Troost Ave.
Noon: Press conference at The Whole Person, 3710 Main St.
5 p.m.: Rally with Mayor Sly James and others, Theis Park, 47th and Oak streets.
5:30 p.m.: March from Theis Park.
6 p.m.: Professors and students speak at UMKC, 5100 Rockhill Road.
Source: Stand Up KC
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