One week ago the movie Selma, chronicling the 1965 march for voting rights in Alabama, opened in broad release. In theaters throughout the world, multi-cultural, multi-generational audiences have been transported to the segregated South of 50 years ago to visually and viscerally experience the struggle of not just African Americans but progressive Americans who sought to combat injustice.
As an African American daughter of a homecare worker raised in the Deep South, and a white male veteran and grandson of a Pentecostal minister, the legacy of and fight for social and economic justice is part of our shared DNA. What is striking to the two of us is not just the storytelling in Selma about the movement, but the story it tells us about where we are today in the fight for equality.
The strides made in the civil rights movement were made because of coalitions both likely and unlikely. African Americans, Latino Americans, Native Americans, Asian Americans and White Americans; laborers, maids, teachers, and sanitation workers; entertainers, doctors, lawyers; Jews, gentiles, and agnostics -- all of whom converged in rural communities and urban centers throughout the '60s to compel America to fulfill its promise.
Dr. King saw both discrimination and poverty as the major social ills confronting America, saying "that the inseparable twin of racial injustice was economic injustice." The Poor People's Campaign launched under his watch was carried out in the wake of his assassination by the coalitions that anchored the movement. Consistent with the language that Congress used when enacting the Fair Labor Standards Act in 1938 to ensure "the minimum standard of living necessary for health, efficiency, and general well-being," the campaign's goal was to guarantee that every American had access to fair wages and housing. Yet despite some advances the chapter of this story is still incomplete.
Today most workers earning the minimum wage in cities across America still can't make ends meet; and, often, basic protections like earned sick days and enforceable laws to combat stolen wages elude them. This is why in the past few years, retail, fast-food, homecare and airport workers in San Francisco, Seattle, and other cities have formed coalitions to elevate pay to a level where they can survive on a single job -- not three.
Los Angeles has been a leader in this fight. In the past year, hotel and school district employees here have won raises as workers, community leaders, and families rally to demand change.
Despite being one of the wealthiest and most expensive cities to live in, nearly half of all workers in L.A. are paid less than $15 an hour. The numbers are much bleaker in communities of color.
Families can't afford to live in Los Angeles on $19,000, the yearly take home salary for a worker earning California's current minimum wage of $9 an hour. Gas prices, housing and the cost of basic necessities like groceries are unattainable in Los Angeles for an individual earning minimum wage, much less a family of three, four or five.
A movement -- social, economic or political -- is about the collective, which is why the same coalitions that formed in 1965 are coming together today to increase the minimum wage. Community organizations, construction workers, truck drivers, grocery workers, teachers, and others are coming together. A minimum wage increase in Los Angeles will allow retail employees, temporary staffers, homecare workers, laborers, college grads and seniors who've re-entered the workforce to sustain their basic needs and stimulate the local economy. The Economic Policy Institute has found that every dollar paid to workers results in $1.24 for the local economy.
Key industries like technology, real estate development, manufacturing, retail and Hollywood contribute to our thriving business environment. Corporate profits are at an all-time high; but for businesses to thrive, employees must too.
For every theater-goer, minimum wage-earner or maximum wage-maker who applauded, cried, or expressed righteous indignation at the story told in Selma, we'd like to remind them that the story of economic justice is still being written in our country, city and state. In the words of Benjamin Todd Jealous, past president of the NAACP, "no person can maximize the American dream on the minimum wage."
Laphonza Butler is the president of SEIU California representing 700,000 workers and SEIU-United Long Term Care Workers Union, representing more than 180,000 homecare workers statewide. Rusty Hicks is the Executive Secretary Treasurer of the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor representing more than 300 unions and 600,000 workers.