Detroit is bankrupt, Chicago just layed off 2,100 teachers, and California Wal-Mart workers are on strike.
Detroit is bankrupt, Chicago just layed off 2,100 teachers, and California Wal-Mart workers are on strike. Across the U.S., a growing number of Americans are fed up with low pay and spending cuts that are touted as a panacea for budget deficit and years of overspending by American cities.
The rollbacks occur as Congress appears unwilling to raise the minimum wage, a decision that living-wage advocates say would put more money in the pockets of low-wage workers and stimulate the economy. With little impetus to raise the minimum wage to $10.10, a proposal now supported by 80 percent of Americans, congressional ratings have plummeted to an abysmal 15.8 percent approval, according to an aggregation of national polling averages published by Real Clear Politics.
Bipartisan austerity marches on
It has been a busy week of protests across the U.S., as public-sector workers are reeling from cuts to pensions and mass firings in Midwestern cities.
In Detroit, Judge Steven Rhodes declared that the bankruptcy proceedings could continue in the Motor City, allowing Republican Gov. Rick Snyder’s appointed emergency managers to slash pensions and benefits for the city’s public workers.
It’s elicited a small but growing resistance from city workers who are now suddenly scrambling to plan for retirement with few options available to them.
“They are aiming to take our police and fire pensions,” said Darryl Brown, a 12-year veteran of the city’s fire department, adding that if he retired today he’d get $300 a month.
“They have no right, rhyme or reason other than stealing from us,” Detroit firefighter Mark Jackson said, adding if the pensions are taken, “that means I have to work for the rest of my life. This is criminal.”
The Detroit News reports that Brown and Jackson were among the 40 firefighters gathered outside the downtown federal courthouse Wednesday to protest the bankruptcy decision. Detroit’s emergency managers plan to reduce or eliminate benefits for the city’s 30,000 employees and retirees. The city is suffering from a $386 million budget deficit and $17 billion in long-term debt.
Detroit isn’t the only city affected by immediate cutbacks. A little further west, in Chicago, Mayor Rahm Emanuel fired 2,100 public school teachers last week as part of a plan to close 50 schools and move the city toward privatization. The Chicago Tribune reports that the district is running a $1 billion budget deficit this year.
“It was so impersonal,” said Leah Bravo, a Spanish teacher who received an email telling her that her position no longer exists.
In These Times reports that Bravo was one of the hundreds of community members who protested outside the Chicago Board of Education Wednesday, calling out Emanuel and his administration’s policies.
“It’s not about your performance, that’s what’s frustrating,” said Alyssa Johnson, a recently laid-off French teacher. “At first I was upset for myself and my fellow employees, and then I became more outraged about how much it hurts the students. This is a rough school, the students really need us. This isn’t just a job for me, I love my students, I care about them.”
As thousands of teachers are handed pink slips, the city has pushed forward with a plan to offer a $33.5 million subsidy to DePaul University for the construction of a basketball arena, money that protesters say should be spent keeping teachers employed and schools open for students.
This all occurs during a national conversation about raising the minimum wage, a decision that would affect few public-sector workers but could give an immediate boost to millions working across the private sector.
Many Americans are struggling to get by, and those who make the minimum wage of $7.25 per hour make far below what is considered a living wage in the U.S. given the average cost of housing, food and transportation.
Unrest in the private sector, too
On a national day of action calling for an increase in the minimum wage, at least 100 protesters gathered outside restaurants and retailers in Pittsburgh, Pa., this week to call out corporations like McDonald’s that pay workers $10 per hour or less.
“We can’t survive on $7.25!” the protesters chanted. Some yelled, “Take your burgers, take your fries. Make our wages super-sized!”
The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reports that Rev. Ken Love addressed the crowd, labeling the inequity of wages “criminal.” Don Thompson, CEO of McDonald’s, made over $4 million in 2011.
Love called for a minimum wage closer to $15 per hour.
“That’s just barely what it takes a family to get by on,” he told the crowd. “If you have two kids, you’re still going to struggle to get a mortgage to buy a home to live in. It isn’t even like on $15, I can buy a house, I can buy a car, I can go on vacation.”
The protests follow weeks of fast-food strikes earlier this year involving hundreds of workers who walked off the job in one-day protests in New York, Detroit, Milwaukee, St. Louis, Chicago and Seattle. Most of the workers are calling for a raise to $15 per hour and the right to form a union without intimidation.
This week marks the four-year anniversary since the minimum wage was last raised. The Kansas City Star reports that labor and faith-based groups gathered in Missouri to declare that now, with at least 50 million Americans living in poverty, there is a serious need to raise the wage again.
“We’re telling real people’s stories,” said Rev. Donna Simon, pastor of St. Mark Hope and Peace Lutheran Church, according to the Star. “Most people are surprised to hear about the difficulty of living on $15,000 a year.”
“We’re glad to have community support,” said Terrance Wise, a fast-food worker who works 70 hours a week at two separate jobs. “No company will just give us more on our own.”
His fiancee also works two jobs, but he added, “We still sometimes come up short to pay all the bills.”
Wise and his fiancee are part of the ever-increasing number of private-sector workers who earn less than $10 an hour. According to a recent study by the National Employment Law Project, more than 1 in 4 private-sector workers now make less than $10 an hour.
In response to the growing unrest, President Obama renewed a promise this week to help poor and middle-income Americans by raising the minimum wage.
“Whether you owned a company, swept its floors, or worked anywhere in between, this country offered you a basic bargain — a sense that your hard work would be rewarded with fair wages and benefits,” Obama said. “No one who works full time in America should have to live in poverty. I will keep making the case that we need to raise a minimum wage that in real terms is lower than it was when Ronald Reagan took office.”
When it comes to Obama’s record on the economy, the president has generally followed Republicans’ lead, favoring austerity and cuts that affect broad sections of the American working population, including $85 billion in cuts to federal programs that help working families.
Long before the sequester, 50 million Americans were living in poverty, and advocates have struggled to generate the political will in Congress raise the minimum wage. The minimum wage would have to be raised to $10.74 just to keep pace with inflation, according to a study by the National Employment Law Project.
If the minimum wage was increased to keep up with improvements in worker productivity, it would be $22 per hour.
The inability to raise wages could partly explain why congressional approval has dropped to an abysmal 15.8 percent, according to the latest aggregation of opinion polling by Real Clear Politics. Similarly, the president’s approval rating has dipped below 50 percent.
This article originally was published July 26, 2013.