May 10, 2016

By: Marni Fritz

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April 14, 2016: Day of Action for Livable Pittsburgh. Workers from all over Pittsburgh took to the streets to demand a $15 minimum wage and the right to form a union. The day culminated in a march through Oakland, stopping at UPMC and Mcdonald’s along the way. Photos by Ray Gerard

Starting at 6am on Thursday April 14th, workers throughout Pittsburgh began to strike for a $15 minimum wage and for the right to form a union.  Workers from a wide variety of industries came together as one to fight for a livable city and an end to poverty wages, joining thousands of people all over the world, as part of a global day of action.  Actions sprang up in 320 cities including New York City, Miami, Los Angeles, Chicago and Paris; all demanding rights for low-wage workers.

This Day of Action for a Livable Pittsburgh started at 6:00 AM on the North Side at the McDonald’s at Allegheny and Ridge to demand livable wages for fast-food workers. Stops along the way included Taco Bell and Wendy’s.  Workers were encouraged to walk off and join the group with solidarity cheers and messages from other striking workers; none joined.

The group of fast-food workers and supporters entered the McDonald’s chanting “We want change, and we don’t mean pennies!” Workers stood on the street, citing countless examples of the struggles created by working for $7.25 an hour while trying to raise children, while trying to go to school and, most importantly, while trying to survive.  Workers are demanding an end to poverty wages, reinforcing the notion that no one should be working a full time job and live in poverty.

Pennsylvania has not seen a minimum wage increase since 2007 and despite job growth throughout the country, Pennsylvania’s median income is $800 under the national average (see Neil Cosgrove’s article “Higher Pay Leads to Higher Productivity and Profit” in the April, 2015 issue of the NewPeople). Small wins in Pennsylvania include the recent decision by Governor Tom Wolfe to increase state government employees’ wages to $10.10 per hour.  This is not good enough.  It is time to push our elected officials, our institutions and corporations to stop saving money at the expense of workers’ lives.

Strikers and fellow protesters continued their demonstrations throughout the day, supporting strikers at the Stanwix St. McDonald’s, demanding a fair contract at the Omni Hotel, and supporting currently striking Verizon workers, all leading up to the rally and march in Oakland.  The Oakland march focused on the demand for UPMC to raise their wages to $15, which they have announced will happen by 2021, and for workers to continue to push for the right to form a union. But economic justice includes not just a $15 minimum wage and a union. Throughout the rally, different people called for childcare, maternity leave, accessible healthcare, student debt relief, union rights for adjunct workers, rights for people with disabilities, and an end to racism and xenophobia, highlighting the true plight of the low-wage worker.

 Leslie, a UPMC worker, spoke at the rally on the need for not just a $15 minimum wage, but a union also: “I have been there for 13 years and recently just started organizing, about four years ago thanks to SEIU. I’m here to tell you that just because they said they are raising it to $15 they have no pressure from us. Come on now. Now let’s put some pressure on them  because now we need one more thing. We need that union! (Crowd cheers.) We’re not gonna stop until we get it!”

Students spoke about the crippling debt facing them come graduation time, while the University of Pittsburgh has workers working for under $15 an hour. Genavieve, a Pitt student, spoke about the difficulties of having to work two jobs while a full-time student and still struggling to live while debt accumulates: “We need $15 for Pitt students because I should not have to work two jobs while going to school full time to get by.”

 After approaching UPMC, a delegation of workers and organizers asked to speak to the President of UPMC, who was nowhere to be found, and left chanting “We’ll be back,” asserting that $15 in five years is not good enough. The president of SEIU, Mary Kay Henry, spoke in front of UPMC: “Today we are calling for an end to subsidizing corporations unable to give a living wage.”  The march then stopped at the McDonald’s on Forbes Ave in Oakland, which was successfully closed for the day, while echoing the chant “if we don’t get it – shut it down.”

 In addition to worker representation, voices from the Muslim community, students with disabilities, activists in the Black Lives Matter and the anti-fracking movements, came together in solidarity to demand an end to racist and xenophobic sentiments that are building in this country. The speakers also stood up against the exploitation of people, particularly people of color, under our current capitalist system. “Is $15 our problem? Is Islamophobia our problem? We are united and we won’t lose,” said Wasiullah Mohamed of the Islamic Center of Pittsburgh. Signs quoting Malcom X, “You can’t have capitalism without racism,” were thrust into the air as the crowd stood in solidarity around these issues.

 Currently, cities such as San Francisco and New York City have already passed the $15 minimum wage, inspiring the message “When we fight, we win.”  In Pittsburgh, we continue to fight for a livable city for all, including paid sick leave, a $15 minimum wage, the right to form a union, paid maternity leave, equal pay and an end to police violence.  In a system designed to keep people poor, we have a lot to overcome.  The call for $15 and a union is a springboard, not an end goal.  We need to continue to rally around issues of injustice because “when we fight, we win.”

Marni Fritz is The NewPeople Coordinator and Administrative Assistant for the Thomas Merton Center.