The “Fight for 15″ movement for fast-food and retailer workers advocating for higher wages and better treatment has been ongoing for over two years now, and on this Tax Day culminated in a protests in over 200 cities across the country, including events at City Hall in St. Petersburg and later in the day in Tampa’s Copeland Park.
Although the movement has focused on fast food workers, the effort – organized by the Service Employees International Union – has also spread to home health care workers, adjunct professors and child care workers over the past year.
“Today is a new day!,” Nadeije Jajoute shouted to the crowd of several hundred who gathered in Tampa. “We are not asking. We are demanding for better pay!” Jajoute is a child care worker in Hillsborough County who makes $8.05 an hour. She called on the crowd to talk to their neighbors and their family members to keep up the momentum in trying to raise the wages of workers like herself.
Organizers said that the crowd peaked in Tampa earlier in the day at around 600 people; There appeared to be perhaps 200-300 when the speeches began at 4 p.m., and it got smaller after many people enjoyed a free barbecued lunch. But it was also stiflingly hot and humid, making it a challenge for anyone to stand around at the event for too long.
“They tell you to work harder,” said Cole Bellamy, an adjunct at St. Leo University who teaches English and creative writing. “How much harder are we supposed to work? If we’re already working 10 hours a day, if we’re already working two jobs, and we still can’t make our way in the world.”
The drive for $15 has reached fruition in Seattle, while Boston and San Francisco have also raised their minimum wages in the past couple of years.
In Florida, it’s a different story, where the statewide minimum wage is at $8.05 an hour. Legislation filed by Miami Democrats Dwight Bullard in the Senate and Cynthia Stafford in the House to raise the minimum wage has gone nowhere in the GOP-led state Legislature the past couple of years.
Tampa City Councilwoman Lisa Montelione called on the crowd to contact their state legislators if they wanted to see the minimum wage increased. And she urged the crowd to get out and vote.
“So when the next opportunity comes around, you make sure that you fill up your car with everyone you can, and get them to the polls, to make sure we have the right people in Tallahassee,” she said to crises of “All right,” from members of the crowd.
Montelione said she wasn’t the only member of the Tampa City Council who felt the way she did, but she was the only member in attendance. That bothered Yvette Lewis from the Hillsborough County NAACP.
“Why are we fighting so hard to get this in the city of Tampa?” Lewis asked, noting an absence of other council members. “We voted these people into office, we knocked on doors for these people, some of these people even made phone calls for them because they’re from labor unions, and they wave signs for them, but yet we have to fight so hard to get our own issues across and get them passed.”
In fact, Hillsborough County could have been a trend setter over a decade ago.
Former Hillsborough County Commissioner Thomas Scott noted that he himself attempted to get a $9.97 minimum wage for all county employees, as well as workers for certain private companies holding contracts with the county or receiving tax abatements and subsidies back in 2004. That proposal lost on a narrow 4-3 vote. That’s when the minimum wage in Florida was $5.15 (it ended being raised by a vote of the people in a constitutional amendment that November).
“I think we need to hold back our votes and hold back our support until we know we’re going to get what we want,” Lewis complained.
Montelione recounted how human home health care workers were when her mother was dying a few years ago.”The fact that we do not pay a fair living wage to those who take care of our elderly, our informed, and our children is a disgrace to this country,” she declared.
One of the headliners of the day was Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn, who received a few boos from the crowd when he was introduced. Some Tampa Democrats have complained about the mayor’s lack of association with the Democratic Party (he did not attend a major fundraiser in Ybor City over the weekend (though he did make a financial contribution, organizers say). For this event, Buckhorn put on his partisan hat before the crowd.
“I’m tired of the Florida Legislature – they won’t expand Medicaid,” he began. “I’m tired of a governor who fights our president every step of the way and somehow wants to deny the opportunity to implement the Affordable Health Care Act. I got news for you. Florida signed up more people on the Affordable Health (Care) than any place in America! Don’t tell me there’s not a problem. And we did it in spite of those people in Tallahassee.”
He then criticized state lawmakers who restrict the right to vote.
While St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman won positive headlines last year for raising the minimum wage for city workers to $12.50 an hour, Buckhorn boasted that all city workers in Tampa already receive that amount.
“I know this – in this city, there is nobody that starts with the city of Tampa who makes less than $12.50 an hour. Nobody! Even in spite of this recession….each of the last four years I have given our employees a pay raise. We found a way to make it happen because I value their work. Their work is important, and it doesn’t matter if you’re a solid waste worker, or whether you’re the chief of police.”
There is a major election in 2016. Might Hillary Clinton get behind the Fight for 15? Activists across the country appear in no hurry to stop the activism.