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Workers protest low wages in Tampa area 4/15/2015

Shouting slogans like “Stand Up, Fight Back,” hundreds throughout the Tampa area, representing low-wage employees from fast food workers to adjunct professors, took to the streets Wednesday calling for a $15-an-hour minimum wage, regular work hours and respect.

About 600 people converged on Tampa’s Copeland Park later in the day to march in protest. More than 100 people attended each of two rallies earlier Wednesday — at the St. Petersburg City Hall and in front of the Wal-Mart at Fletcher Avenue and Livingston Street — to chant in favor of a living wage and enough hours to qualify them as fulltime employees.

The protests, among some 230 across the nation, were part of the Fight for $15 movement, calling for a higher minimum wage for employees at companies like McDonald’s Corp., Wal-Mart Stores Inc. and Burger King Corp., day care centers and for those in the home healthcare field.

In Tampa, protesters wrote on paper stars, pinning them to a roadside wall, stating what they’d do if they made at least $15 an hour. Their dreams included paying overdue bills, getting a place to live, buying a car and eating healthier food.

Calling Wal-Mart “a terrorist corporation against this nation,” former employee Nadaije Pauljajoute took the bull horn to say it is criminal for a company as profitable as Wal-Mart not to pay employees, people who are operating their stores, a living wage. “They want to own you. We need to hold them accountable.”

Susan Cookson of St. Petersburg, holding a sign calling for $15 an hour and a union without retribution, said she came out to support so many she knows that can’t make it on $10 an hour or less. Horns from passing cars honked as Cookson and the others stood along Fletcher Avenue. She said that as a corporate cook with 30 years experience, she was making just $9.50 an hour at Ruby Tuesday. “I couldn’t even afford my own place, so I’m living in a shelter.”

Several whipped out their food stamp cards to show that they don’t even make enough to put food on their tables without government assistance.

While most of the protesters were from Tampa and St. Petersburg, some came from Winter Haven, Spring Hill, even Broward County.

The Florida Fight for $15 workers’ movement arrived Wednesday first in St. Petersburg, with a variety of workers, including a library employee, saying they cannot afford to support themselves, never mind families, on the state’s current $8.05 minimum wage, even working full time.

“I take care of other people’s kids, but it’s hard for me to take care of mine,” said Leroy Stewart, 39, a part-time child care worker for the city of St. Petersburg who has a 6-year-old son. “They go on field trips. Mine can’t go because I can’t pay for it.”

St. Petersburg City Councilwoman Darden Rice, who is promoting a wage theft ordinance in the city, and Councilman Karl Nurse joined the rally. Nurse will deliver the group’s petition calling for the city council to adopt a resolution asking the state to allow local governments to set their own minimum wage amounts. St. Petersburg recently increased the minimum wage for city workers to $12.50 per hour.

Rev. Thomas Scott, a former Hillsborough County Commissioner, attended the Copeland Park protest to throw the support of the Tampa Bay Coalition of Clergy behind the movement.

“In my former life as a county commissioner, I fought for a living wage back in 2003 and we lost by one vote,” Scott said. “President Obama has talked about how important it is for people to be able to live and have economic success. People deserve to be able to live in a decent house and have dignity.”

At the Tampa Wal-Mart, a small contingent of employees submitted a petition to store management, signed by more than 90,000 supporters of Fight for $15, asking for that hourly amount and regular work hours. The managers, they said, stood with folded arms, listened, then accepted the petition without further comment.

Wage protests are certainly not a new concept in the United States. Back in 1914, 11,000 miners working for Colorado Fuel & Iron Corp., owned by the Rockefeller family and Standard Oil, went on strike over low wages, dangerous working conditions and the company’s “autocratic dominance over the workers’ lives,” according to the website history.com. They wanted a union.

During what is now known as the Ludlow Masacre, miners and their families were evicted from company shacks, ending up in a canvas tent city, where they were attacked by company-hired detectives and the National Guard. In the end, 66 men, women and children died during the strike. The miners never did get recognition for their union.

More recently, the Occupy Wallstreet movement, started in Lower Manhatten in 2011, called attention to low wages and the indignation that comes with the growing gap between rich and poor.

Fight for $15 started in 2012 to protest for higher pay for low-wage workers. The campaign is spearheaded by the Service Employees International Union.

Already, organizers say, it is changing the way people think about low-wage work.

A group called OUR Walmart took the lead in organizing protests in St. Petersburg and Tampa. While Wal-Mart employees are not attempting to unionize, the leader for these local protests, Eric Schlein, is a member of United Food and Commercial Workers, a grocery workers’ union.

He said that at the urging of legal counsel, a disclaimer is included on all press releases emphasizing that this is not an effort by Wal-Mart employees to unionize. There has been retribution against those participating in protests, he said. “Wal-Mart has been retaliating against Wal-Mart workers who have been speaking out, even though they are not trying to unionize. This is their tactic to lift up their voices. But when workers go on strike, it’s really important for everyone to be clear it is for their rights, not to form a union.”

“Here, we’re being joined by fast food restaurant workers, employees in child care, home health care, even adjunct professors.

“People are always saying ‘why don’t you just get an education,’”instead of seeking higher wages for such jobs, Schlein said. But even adjunct professors at institutions for higher learning are joining the protest because even they aren’t making $15 an hour, he said. “They have bachelors degrees, masters degrees, even PhD degrees.”

Schlein said Fight for $15 is moving the needle, as is evidenced by recent wage increases announced by both McDonalds and Wal-Mart. McDonald’s earlier this month said it would raise its starting salary to $1 above the local minimum wage, and give workers the ability to accrue paid time off. It marked the first national pay policy by McDonald’s, and indicates the company wants to take control of its image as an employer. But the move only applies to workers at company-owned stores, which account for about 10 percent of more than 14,300 locations.

Kendall Fells, organizing director for Fight for $15, said McDonald’s remains a focus of the protests and that the company’s recently announced pay bump shows fast-food workers already have a de facto union.

“It shows the workers are winning,” he said.

Lisa Peitro, a Winter Haven Wal-Mart employee, said her bump in pay, including a merit increase this year, was 45 cents an hour, bringing her pay to $9.40 An hour. “It put me in a higher tax bracket, but I’m still getting food stamps.” She said she joined the protest after her employers warned her to stay away from Fight for $15 “because they were bad people.”

Last year, more than a dozen states and multiple cities raised their minimum wages, according to the National Employment Law Project. Wal-Mart also recently announced pay hikes.

Robert Reich, former Labor secretary and a professor of public policy at the University of California, Berkeley, said stagnating wages for lower-income workers are also helping change negative attitudes about unions.

“People are beginning to wonder if they’d be better off with bargaining power,” Reich said.

These organized demonstrations got an early start Tuesday afternoon in Boston, where several hundred people including college students, low-wage workers and their supporters gathered for a rally. In Detroit, protesters gathered in the evening inside a McDonald’s and organizers say three employees walked off the job as part of the protests.

In New York City, protesters rallied outside a McDonald’s early Wednesday morning and were planning more demonstrations throughout the day.

In an emailed statement, McDonald’s said it respects the right to “peacefully protest” and that its restaurants will remain open Wednesday. In the past, it said only about 10 to 15 McDonald’s workers out of about 800,000 have participated.

In a recent column in The Chicago Tribune, McDonald’s CEO Steve Easterbrook described the company’s pay hike and other perks as “an initial step,” and said he wants to transform McDonald’s into a “modern, progressive burger company.”

But that transformation will have to take place as labor organizers continue rallying public support for low-wage workers. Ahead of the protests this week, a study funded by the SEIU found working families rely on $153 billion in public assistance a year as a result of their low wages.