They waited at both entrances. On rainy Beacon Street and on the back side of the Massachusetts State House, chatting about work. And their children. And the holidays, plus movies that have tickled them of late.
Low-wage employees: they’re just like you. And me. We all hate waiting on long lines, but we’ll stick it out if the cause is worthy enough. In this case, hundreds of workers—from industries ranging from fast food to commercial air travel—were on hand Tuesday calling for a $15 minimum wage along with protesters in more than 300 other cities.
A mother pushed her stroller through the crowd. People leaned in to squeeze baby cheeks then moved out of the way, allowing for the woman to cut to the front by the metal detectors.
Those with contacts and credentials walked right past security. Kind of makes you wonder why they even bother with such measures.
Inside, workers young and old, plus organizers from various SEIU chapters and affiliated labor fronts, scrambled up toward the Great Hall. This was no virgin rodeo; under the flags of every town across the Commonwealth, demonstrators broke out the theatrics.
Organizers started with a shoutout to more than a dozen elected officials who support them—from Sen. Pres. Stan Rosenberg, to state Rep.-elect Mike Connolly of Cambridge. Also acknowledged was State Sen. Jamie Eldridge of Acton, who was arrested on civil disobedience charges along with 35 other peaceful protesters in Central Square that morning. After that action outside of the McDonald’s on Mass Ave (across from The Middle East), as well as an afternoon congregation of low-wage airport workers in East Boston, the various fronts flowed to the State House in solidarity, eager to advance their struggle.
“We are here because it has never been more important for workers to stand together when there are so many forces trying to tear us apart.”
On that opening cue, Carlha Toussaint, an organizer with the Coalition for Social Justice in Brockton, riffed on the history that led this delegation to the hall.
“We are here because our livelihood is on the line,” she told the standing room. “When I started this [effort] I was mopping the floors at Dunkin Donuts and I had an organizer come up to me and say, ‘Are you fed up?’ It’s not a privilege that we’re asking for a raise. It’s our long overdue right … Is it too much to ask, if I have a child, for some time off?”
Rev. Mariama White-Hammond of the Bethel A.M.E. Church in Jamaica Plain, who has participated in the Moral Monday movement pressuring the stubborn legislature in North Carolina to address wage inequality, stepped up next. And brought it:
“We come from different parts of the state but we are here united working for justice,” White-Hammond said. “We are calling on our city, state, and country to fulfill its promises to its citizens that if you wake up in the morning, or sometimes in the middle of the night, and go out and work hard and put in those hours, when you come home you’ll actually be able to afford the rent, and be able to put food on the table.”
Nodding to the national significance of the moment, with tens of thousands rallying elsewhere as well, White-Hammond drew parallels between struggling people everywhere and those standing tall against the Dakota Access Pipeline and, bringing the passion back to the wage battle, quoted Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.: “What [is] the right to sit at a lunch counter if you can’t afford to buy a hamburger?”
A Logan Airport worker followed. She makes $10.50 an hour, which she reported, “Is not enough to put food on the table.” She continued: “I am fighting for a decent paycheck. I never thought I would be in the streets protesting, but I can’t survive on what I make now.”
We’ve heard these cries before. The hardships of low-income workers are well-known, from the Commonwealth to California. It’s not the first time organizers in this realm have plucked at holiday heartstrings either; though having followed the painstaking work it’s taken for the Fight for $15 folks to reach this point, it seems they have assembled an unprecedented force, from allies in high places like the senate president to legions who turned out in Tuesday’s wind and muck.
During the last wave of actions to increase the minimum wage in Mass, even commercial media haircuts fell in line, as was appropriate, agreeing, in some way or another, that it is insane to deny the lowest-paid workers among us the basic respect of an honorable salary. The public seemed to agree, though rank-and-file lawmakers smirked comfortably, reminding us that we will have the highest lowest wage in America when our minimum hits $11 in January.
Clearly that is not enough. A few more spectacles like this, however, and perhaps some more of them might pay attention and actually do the humane thing. For a change.
A Queens, NY native who came to New England in 2004 to earn his MA in journalism at Boston University, Chris Faraone is the editor and co-publisher of DigBoston and a co-founder of the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism. He has published several books including 99 Nights with the 99 Percent, and has written liner notes for hip-hop gods including Cypress Hill, Pete Rock, Nas, and various members of the Wu-Tang Clan.