It began just before the calendar turned last winter: low-wage Walmart workers captured the public's attention the day after Thanksgiving in 2012 with nationwide Black Friday protests demanding higher pay. Two days earlier, workers at LAX -- Los Angeles International Airport -- rallied in the streets and clogged traffic to let travelers know how airport jobs that once sustained families have turned into low-wage, no-benefit employment. A week later, fast-food workers in New York City staged a one-day strike to protest poverty wages.
Those courageous people spawned a workers' movement that spanned the whole of 2013 and was historic in its passion, its scope and its success.
I joined the LAX workers and left inspired by their conviction to stand up for themselves and for all working people. Less than a month later, I stood with thousands of working people outside the state Capitol in Michigan to object to the right-leaning Legislature's misguided effort to ram through a bill that weakened employees' voice on the job. The bill's passage was a tough blow but strengthened workers' resolve to speak out for themselves and their families.
The fast-food strikes quickly spread from New York to Chicago and then to six additional major metropolitan areas by the spring and summer. And by August, workers in more than 60 cities went on strike, making clear the fast-food forward movement is not a passing phase. In early December, the nation saw its largest one-day fast-food workers' strike in history, with workers in more than 100 cities participating. The Walmart strikes have grown and expanded, too -- and everywhere, community and faith leaders, elected officials and even the consumers at these stores and restaurants have joined in support.
Without question, the movement to turn the economy's low-wage jobs into good jobs has gained ground. No wonder President Obama reportedly plans to focus on income inequality in his State of the Union address Jan. 28. Just a few weeks ago, he echoed the sentiments of anxious working families, "A dangerous and growing inequality and lack of upward mobility has jeopardized middle-class America's basic bargain -- that if you work hard, you have a chance to get ahead."
In 2013, workers transformed the public discourse about income inequality in our country. Before, the counter-narrative held that fast-food and retail jobs are not meant to sustain families. Now, there is greater understanding that these are, in fact, some of the few jobs that have been created during the economic recovery. According to Bureau of Labor Statistics projections, some of the fastest-growing occupations between now and 2020 will be low wage.
That's why we must continue to act.
Real change is already happening, from a $15 minimum wage in SeaTac, Wash., and minimum-wage increases in New Jersey, the District of Columbia and suburban Maryland to scheduling of the first union election at an Amazon.com warehouse.
Movements are emerging across the economy as workers help to change the dialogue about the low-wage economy. Adjunct professors, once quintessentially middle class, are struggling, but they are speaking out, raising awareness and organizing to have a stronger voice on the job. Warehouse workers, airport workers and others are calling on wealthy corporations to move away from business models that rely on poverty wages for profitability. And home care workers are gearing up to ride the wave of momentum. Home care is one of the fastest-growing job sectors, but where workers aren't united yet, they face poverty wages and no benefits, leading to high turnover. As the baby boomer generation ages, we need to turn home care jobs into good union jobs with living wages and benefits, so that seniors and people with disabilities can live independently at home instead of an institution.
The movement to transform low-wage jobs into jobs that can support a family is just getting started. Expect a lot more change in 2014 as more low-wage workers continue to push to realize fully the power they have created in 2013 by joining together. Millions more Americans, who can see that a low-wage economy is bad for everyone, are standing behind them.
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