by Jay Monaco
Among the few things the entire left – and even some liberals – should and usually do agree on are the need for a drastically increased minimum wage and the need for strong unions. The day of action and solidarity last Thursday centered around both of those things, so we all got to spend the day together, agreeing. Politics and protest are extremely serious matters, but despite the requisite consistent solemnity and gravity, there are times we experience greater difficulty disguising the fact that we’re all simply happy to be doing what we’re doing.
The action begins
That was Thursday. The main event, planned long ago, was Boston’s contribution to the nationwide Fight for $15 demonstrations, which kicked off at 3:30 in the afternoon. But the day’s work actually started ten hours earlier.
Well, not for me – I wasn’t there, so I can’t claim credit. But other members of CAJE and Socialist Alternative rose with the sun to gather at 6 AM at McDonald’s in Manchester, invading the franchise shoulder to shoulder with activists with Fight for $15, the Granite State Organizing Project, and veterans of Occupy New Hampshire.
Starting with this, the first of the day’s actions, it was not merely the chanting and the signs, the standard leaflets and messages of support for the workers in the restaurant, but the memorial respect and raising of consciousness with regard to the tragedy of Jeffrey Pendleton. The late Pendleton had himself been a long-term fast food worker as well as a participating activist fighting for a $15 minimum wage in New Hampshire – which, it should be noted, would more than double the wage floor in the Granite State, which currently has no minimum wage law and thus defaults to the federal obscenity that is $7.25. He was also homeless and therefore unable to pay $100 in bail for trifling charges and without a working cell phone containing numbers he might have called for help. He was crudely stashed, awaiting trial, at the infamously cruel Valley Street jail in Manchester, where he died. No one at the prison has yet told us why.
As befits his memory and story, many of the day’s remaining events would be conducted with his image in mind and on his behalf.
The McDonald’s manager must have a snitch embedded in the activist community (kidding!) because he had clearly expected the unwelcome horde for justice and calmly and immediately called the police, who suddenly swarmed the joint with overwhelming force – within minutes!
Fortunately, they did not beat anyone or tear gas the McDonald’s, but there was some disapproval noted by the crowd when the lead officer stated a refusal to shake the hand of an activist (who was, let’s be real, being far too accommodating in offering the friendly gesture in the first place), but that was that. The crowd was dispersed. On with the day.
I arrived on the scene several hours later, when it was time to board the buses for Boston at the Crosspoint building in Lowell – where we encountered our first intersection with the Verizon Strike that had just erupted furiously a day or two before. Verizon has a sizable workforce within the Crosspoint complex, a point made evident by the fact that these workers were shutting down traffic to the office tower with their picket line. The police were everywhere, but they did nothing to interfere with the picket line’s obstruction of business.
Supporting, as we do, the striking workers 100% and more, if necessary, we ourselves joined the picket for a couple rounds as we waited for the bus. The union leaders running the show weren’t aware our bus was picking us up here, but as soon as they heard what we were there for, we were welcomed with open arms. Many of the strikers we encountered, they told us, would also be making the trek to the Boston rally where they’d be joining up with fellow strikers from all over.
Solidarity coursing through our veins, we soon boarded the bus – generously provided by Fight for $15 – and were on our way.
This shouldn’t be an argument
Now, all this jubilation and encouragement and fresh energy we all felt in the face of this unqualified cooperation, support, and solidarity might be traced to the fact that it stands in such contrast with what we may encounter in the day to day. The fact is that a lot of our peers – even those in the working class and, even worse, even those who themselves make less than $15 an hour – oppose a drastic minimum wage hike and are ambivalent at best with regard to unions and the labor movement.
This includes, it must be pointed out, a wide swath of the Democratic Party.
Intellectually, I understand why so many embrace self-defeating and subservient philosophies – when you’ve been kicked down so many times and for so long, it’s hard to know what up and down even are anymore. But you don’t have to be a leftist to be on board with the kind of basic worker justice we’re talking about here. I do recommend, of course, that you do become a leftist, because it’s great to be a leftist, but you don’t have to.
I would suggest it’s difficult to argue (though many do it anyway!), given that we live in a society in which an unprecedented level of wealth has “been created,” that anyone, absolutely anyone, should be denied, at minimum, a place to live and enough food to be healthy. That’s just basic human decency, not communism. But here, we’re talking about something even more narrow than that – we’re talking about the idea that someone who works full time should be able to have a place to live and enough food to be healthy.
Seriously, click that link. Put in the place where you live. This isn’t some fringe Soviet Math, this is MIT. This is a living wage calculation accepted by mainstream economics. And you basically can’t live anywhere with any decency or security on $15 per hour, never mind what we have now. It’s just not possible.
Is it not obvious that this is unacceptable? Is it not obvious that this is why we must fight, and win, a wage sufficient to live on?
When you oppose a minimum wage hike, you oppose other people – people not that different from yourself, despite what you’d like to think – making enough money to survive, no matter how hard or how long they work. Let’s just be clear on that.
Cue the people crowing about inflation, as if raising the minimum wage has ever caused some kind of manic price panic that swallows any benefit from the increase (hint: it hasn’t). For Christ’s sake, guys, even liberal economics would point out that the increased purchasing power gained by so many workers leads to increased sales and therefore increased profits.
Then there’s people who make $14 per hour today in some job that carries some degree of greater perceived respectability than, say, a “mere” fast food worker – “Why should I make the same as a fast food worker? Their work doesn’t mean shit!” they whine – and it’s important that they, and all of us, recognize that for what it is. A whine. A blow to the ego. Even if you already make $15 per day, other people making $15 doesn’t take your money away from you. And, frankly, returning again to the liberal market economics to which I don’t even subscribe, the competitive employment market will ultimately raise your wages, too. So stop whining and hating on your fellow worker for wanting to earn a wage that brings them closer to being able to actually afford to live here. In this country, I mean.
Or, you know, be able to make $100 bail for bullshit charges. Or not be homeless and exposed to the regular abuses of police and local officials.
Do we really need to argue about whether someone “deserves” $15 per hour when we’re talking about something that’s almost always less than even what is needed to survive? These are people working their ass off, working harder than you, doing a job you’d hate way more than the one you have now. And you want to deny them that tiny measure of dignity?
The same goes for unions and strikers. These aren’t spoiled, pampered people who don’t know how good they have. These are people, even those few lucky enough to be represented by unions today, who have been beaten down, robbed, forced to work harder for less. In the case of the Verizon workers, they’re not even striking for a pay raise. They’re just striking to exist, to be able to effectively stand together and fight for their interests.
You should be able to stand together with your fellow workers, and fight for your collective interests, too. Would you argue otherwise? You mean to say you don’t want those rights and protections? You love the Bill of Rights and all that shit but when it comes to actually having real rights, rights that mean something, for yourself, you say you don’t want them? That’s absurd.
We’ve all been beaten and robbed, and we’ve all been forced to work harder for less. This is collective. This is the last 35 years. This is – dare I say it – class-wide. The whole working class. And that includes you.
You could’ve been on that bus with us, heading down to the big rally, could have been at the rally carrying a sign, proud to be a person and a worker and able to stand up and say so.
But you weren’t. Ask yourself why.
Like most protests, this was a well-orchestrated show, planned and coordinated in advance with city officials and the like. A gathering with speeches on the State House steps followed by an orderly procession through surrounding streets. It qualifies as a rally, sure, but not much of a protest, even with 2,000 people there. Objectively speaking, aside from my own feelings of joy throughout, it could best be described as a gathering more so than anything else.
And there’s actually nothing wrong with that.
We do need to protest. Particularly in places like New Hampshire where the bizarro legislature is going to entertain the idea of raising the minimum wage for exactly zero seconds. In the Commonwealth, of course, plans have already begun for a hike, maybe – not to be outdone by California and New York – all the way to $15 (at some point a few years down the line, of course, and with some bizarre bundle of stipulations). That’s a good thing.
In gathering together (on what turned out to be a gorgeous day, I would add), we are better able to see that good thing in the proper context – that of several years’ dedicated work and boldness on the part of uncompromising leftists. Let it not be forgotten that this concept – $15 as a minimum wage – was never a part of the Serious National Discourse prior to Socialist Alternative member Kshama Sawant’s successful city council victory running on a $15-centered platform in Seattle, which led to her ultimate success in passing just such a measure.
Suddenly, it was cool to talk about.
But, since then, it’s been the dogged efforts of a wide coalition of activists, led by the union-heavy Fight for $15 and bolstered by the efforts of socialists and others, tirelessly. The 2,000 who gathered last Thursday in Boston represented the largest such minimum wage gathering there to date, with each successive event having been larger than the last.
This movement is succeeding, and growing, because we refuse to let up and because we’re willing and able to work together collaboratively and without reservation on this one. The bougie legislatures are being forced to pass their own substantive wage hikes in order to insert their loopholes and exceptions and, in some cases, prevent a loophole-free version from making its way to any dreaded popular ballot referenda. Their watered-down BS isn’t acceptable, of course, but we must learn from the fact that their hands are being forced.
Only all of us – all the unions I saw at the rally, all the activists crews like Fight for $15 and GSOP and Jobs Not Jails and Interfaith Worker Justice and, yes, all the different socialist parties and all the different party branches I saw represented. It depends on our willingness to stand together and our unwillingness to shut up and back down.
This is the only way we will ever be able to improve things for ourselves, to protect the most vulnerable members of society, and to stop losing ground – not just that, but to push back and win back all that’s ours that’s been stripped from us.
That includes you – and we need you on our side.