Commentary

The fight against contingent labor is a civil rights struggle, too

Winsotn-Salem teach-inThe demonstration against the North Carolina legislature’s voter suppression law, organized by the NAACP and Moral Monday movement last Monday in Winston-Salem, was a stirring reminder that, fifty years after the Voting Rights Act, civil rights cannot be taken for granted in this country. But the organizers of the day’s event also called attention to another disturbing trend, one that is closely connected to civil rights: the war on poor people, particularly those who find themselves in the most precarious jobs of our economy’s service sector.

A teach-in on economic justice, facilitated by the NAACP, was held on Monday afternoon at Goler Memorial AME Zion Church. Ben Wilkins of Raise Up for 15 launched the discussion by emphasizing that voter suppression laws are aimed not only at minorities, but at poor people.

To emphasize this point, Wilkins quoted Dr. Martin Luther King’s speech of March 25, 1965, in which Dr. King observed that “segregation of the races was really a political stratagem employed by the emerging Bourbon interests in the South to keep the southern masses divided and southern labor the cheapest in the land…[T]he southern aristocracy took the world and gave the poor white man Jim Crow. … And when his wrinkled stomach cried out for the food that his empty pockets could not provide, he ate Jim Crow, a psychological bird that told him that no matter how bad off he was, at least he was a white man, better than the black man.”

In recent elections, Wilkins noted, only 24% of fast food workers cast ballots. The legislature’s decision to restrict early voting and same-day registration significantly can impose prohibitive hurdles on people working multiple jobs with difficult hours and little flexibility in the service sector’s most precarious precincts.

Winston-Salem marchHe also pointed out that fast food jobs, particularly after 2008, have ceased to be temporary jobs performed by teenagers. The average age of the four million people currently working in the fast food industry in the United States is 31. Their average hourly salary is $8.25.

The teach-in included personal testimonies by two home care workers, Rahmesha Thompson and Tiffany Thomas; a child care worker, Venetta Strickland; and a fast food worker. They explained the daunting challenges they face trying to feed their families and pay rent on low wage salaries lacking job security. It is particularly ironic that health care workers often can’t afford to be healthy themselves.

Speeches were also made by two adjunct college professors, Caroline Warren of Forsyth Tech (in Winston-Salem) and Tera Holman of Spelman College (in Atlanta). They reminded the audience that an increasingly large number of college instructors experience the same precarious working conditions as fast food workers. They spoke on behalf of Faculty Forward, SEIU’s campaign to improve conditions for contingent faculty in higher education.

Holman, a philosophy professor who teaches four courses a semester for $2,300 each, has no health care, except during the summer, when she can sign up for Medicaid. Warren, who teaches adult education, has seen her hours steadily cut back since she began working at Forsyth Tech. Currently, she is only “allowed” to work 12 hours a week. Like 62% of her college’s employees, she is part time. Consequently, she has to make ends meet by working as a bartender. She said: “I make more money serving beer than teaching college.”

The teach-in made it clear why campaigns such as the fight for a $15 minimum wage must be a goal of progressive politics, in North Carolina and across the nation. As the teach-in made clear, the struggle for job security and livable wages is a critical civil rights struggle of our time.

Dr. Michael C. Behrent is an Associate Professor in the Department of History at Appalachian State University in Boone, NC.

One Comment


  1. LayintheSmakDown

    July 20, 2015 at 8:51 pm

    First, $15 is not gonna happen here. That would just price a lot of things out of the market and destroy businesses. Since labor costs are the majority of costs in these businesses, who is going to be willing and able to pay say $7-8 for the Big Mac these people are serving? It will drive huge price increases that will just be passed on to who? Yes the people who cannot afford the $3.50 Big Mac.

    Second, this is going to only get worse as Obamacare has made part time hours an incentive to businesses. As your wonderful president obama said it gives people time to do other things. It seems those other things it allows people to do is complain that they don’t get enough hours.

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