Commentary

National “Workers First Caravan” to promote racial and economic justice on Wednesday

This is a sad and unsettling time. We’ve experienced months of pandemic-related job loss, sickness and death, but it’s important to acknowledge that Black people are dealing not only with the disproportionate impacts of COVID-19, but also with centuries of racism in America — racism that pervades our criminal justice system, our schools, our politics, our economy.

Since the murder of George Floyd, Americans have come together to demand a better society for all working people even as the pandemic continues to upend our lives and our economy. And these crises — the pandemic,  historic levels of unemployment, and systemic racism — are all interconnected.

For too many working on the front lines of this pandemic, simply going to work could mean getting sick or even losing their lives. Millions of workers are now unemployed. As workers and communities of color are among the hardest hit, we must come to terms with the racial injustice that has plagued our country for far too long.

We need action by elected officials to address the growing economic inequality that has left so many Black families behind. And we need solidarity. All of us, especially white folks, need to condemn white supremacy and the divide and conquer tactics designed to keep all of us —Black, Latinx and white — from uniting and fighting together for shared prosperity for all of us. It is crucial that elected leaders at all levels act to save our economy and save workers’ lives. That’s why we are joining together to demand action with America’s Five Economic Essentials and the Workers First Caravan for Racial and Economic Justice on June 17.

First and foremost, we need to keep workers safe and healthy on the job. Frontline workers are heroes. They are essential, not expendable. They deserve hazard pay, proper safety protections and workers’ compensation coverage in the event they contract coronavirus on the job.

Second, we must ensure that working people are kept on the payrolls for the duration of this crisis, and we demand that the government protect our pensions and other retirement benefits.

Third, Congress needs to invest in our state and local governments, our public schools and the U.S. Postal Service — all vital public services that are being stretched to the breaking point by the pandemic.

Fourth, we need to expand healthcare coverage. The first thing millions of people are losing along with their job is their health insurance, which is especially harmful for communities of color who have disproportionately suffered from COVID-19.

Finally, we need to provide good jobs for anyone who needs one. With record unemployment, there is no better time to reinvest in building the vital infrastructure we need to protect our country and boost employment.

The HEROES Act is federal legislation that would address the twin crises of the pandemic and unemployment, and we urge Sens. Richard Burr and Thom Tillis to support its passage.

We must also do more to combat the crisis of racism and violence against people of color. We at the NC State AFL-CIO firmly believe that the labor movement can play a critical role by bringing people of different occupations, races, and beliefs together and creating opportunities for honest dialogue that fosters reflection, repentance, and reform.

We need to listen to our Black sisters and brothers who are in pain now and have been for over four centuries. We need to commit to marching, organizing, and voting to protect their freedoms as we would our own. We must speak up and stand up, and most importantly, we must stand together.

MaryBe McMillan is the President of the North Carolina State AFL-CIO.

Commentary

It’s time for a higher minimum wage in North Carolina; activists to gather in Raleigh tonight

North Carolina workers need a raise. For 11 consecutive years, the cost of living (food, rent, education, childcare) has increased causing our minimum wage to decline in value by 24 percent. Now, a person working full-time while making $7.25 an hour lives thousands of dollars below the federal poverty threshold. A good job with fair wages is the right of all working people, and the time for change is long overdue.

More than two million people—nearly 1 in 3 workers—in North Carolina get paid poverty wages. They work without knowing how they’ll make rent or how they’ll support their children despite, in many cases, working for multi-billion-dollar corporations that can afford to pay them more. When a family of three would need to make $21.95 an hour to get by on a frugal budget without public assistance, we cannot accept the fabrication that life here is so cheap we can live on low wages; $15 is the actual minimum needed to cover the bare necessities.

A 2017 study by the Georgia Institute of Technology found that child-neglect reports fall when the minimum wage rises. In a 2020 study just published in the Journal of Epidemiology, researchers at Emory University found that minimum wage increases corresponded to drops in the suicide rate for those with a high school education or less. Raising the minimum wage doesn’t just improve lives; it saves them.

Overwhelming evidence shows increasing the minimum wage to $15 would not only drastically raise standards of living but would boost consumer demand, create more businesses, and accelerate job growth. It’s proven successful not just in major cities but in states such as Alaska, Missouri, and Rhode Island. The longer North Carolina goes without increasing the minimum wage, the further southern workers fall behind.

In short, everybody wins.

But even with mountains of evidence against them, greedy corporate executives have fought tooth-and-nail to keep wages as low as possible and consolidate as much wealth as possible for themselves while North Carolina’s working families struggle to keep a roof over their heads.

It’s these same billionaires who have done everything in their power to push back against the labor movement because they know that unions of working people have the power to hold them accountable.

That is why the demand of working people in the Fight for $15 is also a demand to be able to stand together in union and win better pay, benefits, and working conditions. When working people speak up together through the power of unions, they make progress that benefits everyone–white, black, and brown.

In 2019, we saw a year of undeniable momentum for collective action and negotiating. Public approval of unions reached a 50-year high, and strikes across the country resulted in lasting, long-term improvements to working conditions.

From CWA members at AT&T to UAW members at General Motors, half a million people walked a picket line in the past year, including thousands of workers here in North Carolina. As 2020 heats up, we will continue to take our pro-worker message across the state, holding forums like “$15 for NC: A People’s Hearing” on February 13th in Raleigh and working to elect more candidates who will champion the issues important to working families.

The conditions we live and work under are set by those in power, and working people have the power to rewrite the rules by raising the minimum wage and protecting our freedom to join together. The Fight For $15 and a Union is a fight for a better future in the state we are proud to call our home.

MaryBe McMillan is the President of the North Carolina State AFL-CIO