At New York City’s John F. Kennedy International Airport, namesake of that scion of noblesse oblige, there is a great deal in the way of noblesse, as it is a hub for the world’s financial elite, but not much in the way of oblige. The workers who provide security, handle baggage, clean, and cook at JFK make an average wage of $8 an hour, too often putting not just a plane ticket but any semblance of financial security completely out of reach.
Prince Jackson, a security guard at JFK, makes $1,000 per month. “Half of the money goes to rent,” Jackson told a crowd of union members and community activists gathered in New York City’s Union Square on July 24. “After all of my expenses I don’t have anything left.…I can’t explain how much I need the minimum wage to increase.”
The rally was part of a broader movement to demand an increase in the minimum wage, which at the federal level has stood stagnant at $7.25 since July 24, 2009. An estimated 4.5 million workers in the United States make at or below the minimum wage, and the Bureau of Labor Statistics has estimated that seven out of the ten fastest growing occupations, such as in-home healthcare workers and retail workers, are typically low-wage. A coalition of labor unions and community organizations across the United States, led by the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), coalesced around the issue on July 24, with actions in more than 30 cities. Organizers have also protested companies that have historically offered low-wage jobs, such as McDonald’s in Milwaukee and JC Penney in New York City, in addition to members of Congress opposed to or ambivalent about a minimum wage increase.
At the rally in New York City, more than 2,000 people marched from Herald Square to a rally in Union Square, demanding a minimum wage increase at both the New York state and federal levels. The New York State Assembly passed a bill that would raise the minimum wage to $8.50 an hour in May, but the State Senate failed to take action before the end of the legislative session in June. Activists are hoping to pass the bill at the beginning of the next legislative session in January.
In Saint Louis, 200 activists rallied outside of an Applebee’s restaurant to organize in favor of a Missouri ballot initiative that would raise the state’s minimum wage from $7.25 to $8.25 per hour. A minimum wage measure appeared on the ballot in the Show Me State in 2006, with voters passing the measure 3-to-1. In an effort to raise the state’s wage again, activists collected more than 167,000 signatures in April in order to have the measure placed on the general election ballot. They cleared a significant hurdle on July 31 when the state’s Supreme Court rejected a lawsuit that would have struck down the measure, and activists will find out later this week whether or not the Secretary of State has found enough of their signatures valid to qualify.
In Illinois, community organization Action Now picketed a Dunkin Donuts, while teachers and community activists held a press conference outside of a private equity firm partly owned by Chicago heiress and school board member Penny Pritztker, arguing that an increase in the minimum wage would lessen poverty and as a result improve pupil performance in Chicago schools. A plan to raise the minimum wage stalled in the state legislature in May, but activists there are hoping for further movement after the 2012 elections.