Iowa is known for cornfields and state fairs, but the provincial charm got upturned last Friday as workers marched through Des Moines ahead of the caucus, when presidential hopefuls will test their economic talking points.
The fast-food, home-care, and childcare workers protesting had talking points of their own, as they staged Iowa’s first-ever fast-food strike day to demand, once again, $15 and hour and the right to form a union. Local community and labor groups have joined a wave of organizing, supported by the SEIU, that originated in New York over three years ago and has since spread to various low-wage sectors, and hundreds of cities nationwide and abroad. The movement, which has spanned roughly the length of the current presidential term, has introduced a social-justice policy platform for the 2016 race. On top of a $15 hourly wage and a union, campaigners demand accessible and affordable childcare, quality long-term home care, and action on two broader issues that affect low-income communities: addressing anti-black racism and pushing for immigration reform.
Fundamentally, workers just want a dignified livelihood. Angelica Serrano, a Mexican-American immigrant in Des Moines who earns just $9.90 an hour, after working at McDonald’s for 17 years, wrote in a Des Moines Register commentary:
I am nervous to walk off the job, but it is also empowering to join with other underpaid workers who are coming together this year to finally make a change…and for the first time I feel like my voice matters. Since moving to the U.S., I’ve felt so invisible that I never bothered to vote in any election.
Now Serrano and her fellow protesters are becoming visible on the national stage. According to the campaign, the roughly 733,000 workers earning less than $15 an hour in Iowa, or nearly half the workforce, could form a significant voting bloc. Based on turnout estimates from a National Employment Law Project survey, the campaign estimates more than 480,000 of those low-income Iowans would be more likely to vote, or would register to vote, if there were a candidate who advocated a $15 minimum wage. The same survey also found that nearly three-quarters of sub-$15 workers supported the demand of a $15 hourly wage and a union.
Certainly, just turning out to vote for a candidate backing a $15 wage won’t necessarily win these workers anything, but the findings suggest a distinct feedback loop in the politics of inequality since 2011, as campaigns like the Fight for 15, Black Lives Matter, and the climate-justice movement have colored the “mainstream” political conversation through street protests, social media, and targeted civil disobedience. It’s true that many electoral-platform promises will likely evaporate after inauguration day (the Democrats have incorporated the $15 base wage into their platform but face stiff opposition in Congress)—the numerous cities that have enacted or moved toward a $15 minimum-wage standard shows that poor people’s voices are penetrating policy circles local and national.
In Des Moines, according to MIT’s Living Wage calculator, a single parent raising one child requires over $21 per hour. Iowa Policy Project reports that wages have stagnated since the recession, and about three-quarters of Iowa workers earn low incomes (less than 200 percent of the poverty line).
“What I’ve heard over and over again, and today I heard the same story, is that ‘I had a good job before, where I was making $10 an hour, but now I’m at Wendy’s and I’m making $8 an hour,’” says Bridget Fagan-Reidburn, an organizer with Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement, one of the groups coordinating the rallies. While workers “felt at least a little bit more secure previously,” after sliding into low-wage sectors, “they end up being there for years and years and still making $8, $9 an hour.” As the movement spreads across Iowa, she envisions workers “constantly talking to their other counterparts at work and becoming organizers themselves and really taking this on and just driving it. Because it’s really their movement.”
Although Iowa has a relatively low poverty rate of 12 percent, deprivation follows racial divides: about a third of Iowa’s blacks live in poverty, along with one fifth of Latinos and Asians, and 30 percent of Native Americans. Meanwhile, the share of the jobless who are long-term unemployed, for about six months, has risen to about 28 percent.
Some Iowans may be simply unable to work because, ironically, it costs too much to hold down a job. Former childcare provider Alexis Wright was one of the rare workers who was both utterly poor and in love with her job. Even when the 22-year-old was living in a car, scraping by earning minimum wage, she still relished her time with the children. “It’s not just the job,” she says, “it’s the kids, and it’s the parents…. You start to feel like they’re your own kids at a certain point.” Then when she had her own kid, she was unable to afford daycare herself. So she now stays home, caring for one, while struggling to cover basic needs with her fiancé’s meager earnings in a three-generation household, which she says somehow does not quality for public benefits.
Although no longer working, Alexis rallies for $15 anyway, hoping for future job opportunities that pay enough to make work worthwhile, without forcing her to trade a career for parenthood.
“If I was making $15 an hour,” Wright says, “I’d definitely put my son in childcare…I’d be able to go to school,” and perhaps study her current passion, photography. She could start building the kind of secure family life she’s wanted for herself and for the families she once served—parents who, she recalls, also struggled with the cost of care (more than $6,600 annually in Iowa). “They’re the ones working and trying to make it so that they can work for their kids and provide. So it’s huge for everyone, not just the workers, but also for the parents.”
The difference between the Fight for 15 electoral platform and conventional get-out-the-vote efforts of previous years is that poor people’s stories, not political rhetoric, are setting the agenda, and will continue to well after Election Day. Because when the race for the White House is finished, Alexis’ family will still be working toward a fresh start.