fresh voices from the front lines of change







I told you so. When minimum wage workers in Chicago, IL went on strike, I said that the movement to raise the minimum wage would not go away. When fast food workers in St. Louis, MO walked off the job, demanding better pay and better treatment, I predicted that the movement for a livable wage would soon be coming to a lunch counter near you.

If you happen to be in Detroit right now, I was right.

In what's being called the biggest fast food strike so far, more than 400 worker's at Detroit's biggest fast food chains walked off the job today, demanding better wages, better treatment, and the right to unionize. You can show your support by signing their petition demanding a $15 minimum wage.

Hundreds of fast-food workers in Detroit are poised to walk off their jobs on Friday, joining a growing wave of protest against the wages paid in one of the most rapidly growing segment of the nation's labor market.

The strike in Detroit - a city ravaged by crumbling municipal finances, a hollowed-out urban core and the long-term decline of auto industry jobs - follows similar labor actions that hobbled fast-food restaurants and prominent retailers in New York, Chicago and, this week, St. Louis. In these cities, the unusual coalition of workers, who traditionally have not been unionized, took to the streets to complain about low pay and what they call often-shabby treatment by their employers.

Protest supporters say the job actions have broad implications for the nation's workforce. With the long decline of manufacturing jobs and other well-paying positions that do not require advanced educational credentials accelerating during the recession, jobs at fast-food restaurants and retailers represent the future of work for many Americans. The federal Bureau of Labor Statistics projects that seven of the 10 fastest-growing occupations over the next decade will be low-wage ones, such as home health aides, store clerks, food preparation workers and laborers.

Detroit 15, a coalition of religious and labor groups organizing the protests in that city, is pushing for fast-food restaurants to raise their pay, eventually to $15 an hour. Right now, workers, many of whom are paid close to Michigan's $7.40 per hour minimum wage, say they are barely getting by.

I written about Detroit a few times. My huband is from Michigan, most of his family lives in the suburbs aronnd Detroit. In the past 12 years, I've heard about how Detroit was hollowed out by the long exodus of manufacturing jobs from the U.S. As the jobs disappeared, so did the people. In one decade, the city lost 25% of its population, which dropped from 9510,000 in 2000 to 790,00 in 2010. Of course, by 2010, the population was less than half its peak of nearly 2 million in the 1950s.

Meanwhile, the city became a depressing example of what de-industrialization looks like.

It's unlikely that the city will ever be the economic powerhouse it once was, or that it will again be home to industries that offered good jobs at good wages, and the possibility upward mobility for working-class Americans. Instead, it faces a kind of final solution: what's left abandoned in Detroit is being razed. The city government can't afford to keep waiting for a comeback.

Those who could get out did so. Those who couldn't have endured all the consequences of industry's collapse and the city's decline. According to the census, the median income in Detroit is nearly half the national average, and more than one third of the population lives in poverty. Its 18% unemployment rate (as of February 2013) is more than half the national unemployment rate.

The evocative documentary Detropia gives a sense of how the people of Detroit have suffered, coped, and held on in the midst of decay and decline.

Many who have held on in Detrois have turned to minimum wage jobs, often in fast food and retail, in the absence of the good jobs that once were. According to the Michigan Worker's Organizing Committee, there are 53,000 fast food jobs in the Detroit area -- more than twice as many as the auto-manufacturing sector -- and those jobs are expected to grow by 12.3 percent by 2018.

These jobs are the lowest paying in Detroit. According to the MIT Living Wage Calculator, Michigan's $7.40 per hour minimum wage isn't a livable wage for a single individual working full time. It would take at least $9.01 for a worker to make enough to afford essentials like food, shelter, medical care, and transportation. A family of four would need $18.49 per hour.

Meanwhile the average hour wage for managers in the Detroit area is $42.54. Detroit's minimum wage workers aren't asking for half that. Paying them a livable wage isn't just the right thing to do. It might be the best thing to happen to Detroit's economiy in decades.

The Michigan Workers Organizing Committee's campaign, D15, seeks to put money back in the pockets of the more than 53,000 men and women who work hard in the Detroit-area's fast food chains but still can't afford basic necessities like food, clothing, and rent. A single adult in Detroit with a child actually needs to make nearly $18 an hour to get by, according to the MIT Living Wage Calculator. If workers were paid more, they'd spend more, helping to get Detroit's economy moving again.

"Can anybody really feed children and take care of a family on the current minimum wage $7.40 an hour?" asked Pastor Charles Williams II of Historic King Solomon Baptist Church. "If we truly want to stimulate the economy then we must stimulate the wages of those who collectively have the buying power to strengthen the economy. It's simple. I support the workers today because, raising their wage, raises our economy."

Where will the movement for a $15 minimum wage strike next? Hopefully, at your local fast food restaurant.

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