Commentary

As #WageWeek winds down, local efforts stand out

This piece was written by Workers’ Rights Project volunteer Jhari Derr-Hill.

This #WageWeek marks nine years since the last time the federal government voted to raise the minimum wage. Much of the country is just waking up to the fact that it is untenable to expect anyone to be contented working for poverty wages, no matter their labor. Hourly wage workers have known this for too long. Dependent on jobs with irregular schedules and often no form of medical care, retail, food service, hospitality and home care workers are bound to a system that saps most of their time and energy in exchange for pay that won’t cover necessities.

The demand for a higher minimum wage, often in the form of protests led by organizations like Raise Up for $15, is a demand to be seen, to be recognized as valuable participants in the economy, producers without whom a lot less would get done.

North Carolina is home to a burgeoning movement of diverse organizations working to raise wages through any available avenue. One such group is Working North Carolina, whose mission is to build a labor movement among non-union workers.

On June 14, Working North Carolina coordinated a march and rally for pay equity for women. Participants were encouraged to publicize the event on social media using #Stand4Women.

“You can no longer say reproductive justice and economic issues are separate”, Working North Carolina Director Carolyn Smith said. “The same people who have low wages are the same ones who don’t have quality health care…[who] rely on government assistance and places like Planned Parenthood.”

Grassroots organizations aren’t the only groups pushing for better wages, though. A growing number of local governments throughout the state are opting to provide a living wage to their own employees. Local leaders in places like Greensboro, Asheville, Durham, Greenville and Wake County have adopted local living wage ordinances that set a living wage floor for their own employees.

Just last month the governing board of Canton, NC unanimously decided to make the town living wage certified. Canton is one of the latest among hundreds of governments and businesses certified through Just Economics, an organization that advocates for fair wages through education and community outreach in Western North Carolina.

Becoming living wage certified sets businesses apart. Employers who provide a living wage see less absenteeism and turnover in their companies, and also find that it generally boosts wellness among employees.

In addition to pay, Just Economics also focuses on those aspects of life indirectly affected by or attributable to one’s economic status. As Just Economics community organizer Amy Cantrell contends, poverty is isolating, which is why the organization brings together people living in low-wealth neighborhoods for workshops and public forums where they learn ways to bring economic justice home.

The fight for living wages to become the norm is a long one. Given that roughly four out of every five new jobs created in NC since 2009 pay poverty wages, it’s clear that North Carolina organizations pushing for better pay have their work cut out for them. As #WageWeek comes to a close this year, however, low-wage workers and advocates should feel encouraged by the many private businesses and local governments that are responding to the moral imperative to be stewards of their communities (and their local economies) by offering a living wage their employees.

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