NEW YORK, N.Y.—Calling raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour “as big a fight as the ones for FDR’s New Deal during the Great Depression and the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act in the 1960s,” a coalition of unions and activists held rallies in eight cities Feb. 22 to demand that the Senate include the increase in any COVID-19 relief bill it passes.
The House version, a $1.9 trillion package approved by the Budget Committee more or less along party lines Feb. 22, contains the raise. But two Democratic senators, Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, have opposed that. The rallies, organized by the Poor People’s Campaign, Service Employees International Union, Communications Workers of America, and One Fair Wage, targeted those two, as well as Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer; Dianne Feinstein of California and Tammy Duckworth of Illinois, who have endorsed the $15 minimum; and Jeanne Shaheen and Maggie Hassan of New Hampshire, who have not.
“Not one of these senators could live off of what people are living off,” Rev. William Barber of the Poor People’s Campaign told reporters after meeting with Manchin Feb. 18. “Every one of them makes hundreds of thousands of dollars just from us. Every one of them gets free health care. Every one of them has never voted for their wages to be less. That is why this is our economic Selma. This is it, right now. And it’s time for people to step up and not talk about right, left, center, but talk about you cannot claim you love essential workers but then you pass a bill and you leave out what is most essential to them.”
He added that the $15 minimum is a compromise, because “it ought to be $20, so poor and low-wealth people are already compromising. We don’t need another compromise. We need commitment.”
At the Feb. 22 rally outside Manchin’s local office in Charleston, W. Va., Matt Kerner, a factory worker from the small town of Buckhannon, told West Virginia Public Radio that when a coworker asked for a raise because his wife was having a complicated pregnancy and couldn’t work, the plant manager told him, “minimum wage is our way of telling you if we could pay you any less, we would.”
West Virginia’s minimum wage is $8.75 an hour. The federal minimum of $7.25 has not been increased since 2009.
The New York rally, outside Schumer’s offices in midtown Manhattan, drew about 15 people in a toe-numbing cold rain. Organized by One Fair Wage, it focused on eliminating the lower federal minimum for workers who receive tips, which has been $2.13 an hour since 1990. (In New York City, it was $5 until the state minimum was raised in 2016; it’s now $12.50.)
“We deserve a $15 minimum wage with tips on top,” chef Darrel Sukhded told the group. “It’s lost that the wage is so low people don’t qualify for unemployment benefits.”
“It’s simple math,” said Damani Varnado, who has worked in restaurants on and off over the past 30 years. “You have to raise the minimum wage for every man and woman in the United States, and that includes tipped workers.”
“It’s really dicey out there,” he said. Because of the pandemic, restaurant workers are serving customers in outdoor booths in 20-degree weather, and many have lost 90% of their tips.
He called forcing workers to depend on tips “a legacy of slavery.”
Many restaurant workers also don’t get health insurance through their job because they work less than the 35 hours a week needed to qualify, Sukhded said. He called on the state Legislature to pass the New York Health Act, which would create a Medicare-style single-payer system in the state.
“How is it that when 50,000-plus people died in this city, we still have no relief for these workers?” Drake Hunt asked.
Hunt, 18, told LaborPress after the rally that he came to New York from Atlanta to attend college, and works in an ice-cream shop “trying to make rent” on the East Village apartment he shares with a roommate.
“It’s a disgrace,” he said. “We have money for corporate bailouts and overseas wars, but not to take care of our people.”
The other five rallies were held in Washington near the Capitol and outside the senators’ state offices in San Francisco, Chicago, and Manchester and Portsmouth, New Hampshire.