After “A Decade Without a Raise” workers, elected officials call for raising minimum wage

Dayosha Davis of Durham.

Dayosha Davis works in fast food, lives in public housing in Durham and struggles to provide for her two children.

Child care starts at $250 a week, she said, which is difficult to afford on the $7.25 an hour minimum wage.

“Last year I enrolled my daughter in pre-school,” Davis said. “And I had to take her out of pre-school because I couldn’t continue to pay for her education, even with help from my mother. It was a hard pill to swallow.”

Wednesday marked 10 years since North Carolina last raised the minimum wage — from $6.55 to $7.25 per hour. The cost of child care, health care and housing have all gone up in the last decade, Davis said — but minimum wage workers like her aren’t making any more money.

“A lot of us think that this is normal, struggling and living from paycheck to paycheck,” Davis said. “It’s not normal. We don’t have to accept it.”

Davis was one of those pushing for a living wage who came together in Durham Wednesday night to share the struggles of trying to get by on so little money and call for a $15 minimum wage.

The “Decade Without a Raise Workers Forum,” held at the Self Help Credit Union building downtown, came a week after the U.S. House passed the Raise the Wage Act, a measure to gradually raise the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour. Though the bill faces challenges in the Senate, those working in North Carolina’s movement said they felt inspired,

Wanda Coker was with other workers and activists in Washington D.C. to see the vote.

“When the yes vote 231 and it passed the House, I cried,” Coker said. “I felt extremely proud to know that workers made this victory possible. It was seven years of fast food workers joining together, going on strike and especially sharing out stories that changed the national conversation about wages.”

“Thursday’s vote proved workers are powerful when we stand together and speak up,” she said.

Allan Freyer is Director of Workers’ Rights at the N.C. Justice Center, the parent organization of N.C. Policy Watch. The stories of those struggling to get by on the current minimum wage and their tireless work to raise consciousness on the issue is making a difference in the state and at the national level, he said.

“The country will hear more of these stories,” Freyer said. “When you take every face, every name, every story, every family — it adds up to one big story about who is winning in this country and who is losing. About who is cheating so that they can win. This is a story about who has rigged the economy so that others cannot succeed.”Workers across North Carolina make $7 billion less today than ten years ago as a share of the economy, Freyer said. Working people haven’t seen the fruits of an improved economy, Freyer said. In fact, in the last ten years workers’ wages have on average gone down $200 despite increases in productivity. Investor income and executive compensation, meanwhile, has increased.

Allan Freyer

“Raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour is the most important thing we can do to make sure that working folks have enough to make ends meet,” Freyer said. “We’ve heard the stories about cost of living – rents have gone up $200 in Durham in the last 10 years. Health care costs are up $300 a month. These kinds of costs are just out of control. That doesn’t get to transportation, it doesn’t get to child care.”

Durham’s City Council has already raised the minimum wage of city workers — full-time, part-time and seasonal — to $15.48 per hour, Durham Mayor Steve Schewel told the crowd at Wednesday’s forum.

“We need the majority of our legislators to do the same,” Schewel said. “That means we have got to change, we have got to vote and change who we have there– and that needs to happen all across the state.”

The current, Republican-led legislature won’t raise the state minimum wage, Schewel said. Worse, It won’t let cities like Durham pass ordinances to raise their minimum wage beyond their own employees. The movement for $15 an hour for private-sector workers in Durham got a big boost when Duke University, the city’s largest employer, followed through on its plan to raise its minimum wage to $15 an hour this year, Schewel said. He called for Duke to build on that progress by doing the same for its contract workers.

“There is no more important work than what you all are doing to try to get a fair wage for everybody,” Schewel said of the crowd of workers and activists. “A fair wage, $15 and a union.”

Durham Mayor Steve Schewel.

Rep. Marcia Morey (D-Durham) echoed that sentiment, telling the crowd Schewel was right about the lack of progress on the issue in Raleigh under the current GOP majority.

“I’m here to tell you what’s happening in Raleigh, because that’s where it has to happen,” Morey said. “If you think we’re doing nothing, you’re right. The leadership is doing nothing. They’ve tied our hands.”

Democrats have introduced a series of bills to raise the minimum wage in the state, index the minimum to the cost of living, mandate equal pay for equal work, mandate sick leave and end exemptions for farm laborers. But they haven’t been allowed to move in the legislature, Morey said.

The all-white makeup of the GOP majority gives an indication as to why, Morey told the largely black crowd.

“How many of you, people of color, do they have sitting in the seats on that side of the aisle?” Morey said. “Zero. In ten years not one minority member has been in the majority party.”

That has to change, Morey said.

Rep. Marcia Morey

“Right now we’re still in Raleigh,” Morey said. “And why are we there? Because they won’t pass a budget that expands Medicaid for 600,000 North Carolinians – people who are minimum wage and below.”A single hospital visit is enough to financially sink many of those families, Morey said.

“It’s a moral imperative that we expand Medicaid,” she said. “We’re standing strong and going back day after day — and they refuse to vote until they try to get more Democrats on their side.”

Health care and a living wage shouldn’t be political issues, Morey said — but they are.

“The way we change it is to change Raleigh,” Morey said.

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