The Fight for $15 activists sat jammed around one small table -- white, black and Latino/a men and women -- deeply engaged with each other in conversation. Some were gay, some straight I would learn over time. None were out of their 30s; most were younger. There were college professors, labor and community organizers, graduate students and fast food workers – McDonalds employees mostly. Absent were the home health care workers with whom I would speak the next day – African-American, Afro-Caribbean and Puerto Rican women, mostly older than the group who sat in Teresita’s. They couldn’t make it that night but had sent messages saying that they were there in spirit because this was their movement too. Some of them worked as much as 120 hours a week, and had little time to spare for meetings. But they had been drawn into the movement and the union through web sites and Facebook. And they wanted me to know that they were committed to the struggle for a living wage -- and for a little time to themselves. "Take 15 for 15" was their slogan. They walked out of the homes where they were caring for the vulnerable, exhaled and rested for 15 minutes, took pictures of themselves with Take 15 for 15 signs. And then returned to their work.
It became clear to me that this was a diverse movement. Its members differed greatly in education level, politics, race, ethnicity and sexuality. Some of the organizers had come out of a straight labor union background; others had gotten their political start in Occupy, still others honed their political skills in campaigns for Florida’s migrant citrus and tomato pickers, or in struggles against the U.S. military dumping toxics in Tampa neighborhoods. It seemed unlikely that these very different kinds of workers and organizers could be bound together into one movement. And yet there was a strong solidarity among them, grounded in the shared belief that the American dream was no longer reachable for a majority of the country’s citizens.
“That’s what it is,’ said Bleu Rainer, a 26-year-old activist who worked for McDonalds in Tampa and before he migrated South, had been employed at Arby’s in North Carolina. “People used to say to us: ‘If you want to be paid more, go back to school and get a better job.’ But my professors in college aren’t paid much more than I am. We’re all fighting for the American Dream. It’s broken.”
That was certainly true for Cole Bellamy Ph.D. An adjunct English professor employed on temporary contracts at three Florida universities, Bellamy was teaching 12 courses a year (three times my teaching load) and bucking the endless Tampa Bay traffic to commute between his three jobs. All of this earned him around $30,000 a year, a little under twice the federal poverty line. In most regions of the United States in 2015 it takes twice the poverty line just to provide the basics for a parent and two children – rudimentary housing, clothing, food and medical care. “We are low-wage workers too,” the professors at Teresita’s asserted forcefully. “We love organizing with the fast food workers. They teach us a lot about labor strategy and they provide so much spirit. And this system, as it is , is not sustainable. Unless we do something the university as we know it will disappear in the next ten years.”
How did they come to see themselves as low-wage workers? Before the 2008 crash, few educated white-collar workers were comfortable joining forces with fast food workers, home health care workers, airport baggage handlers and retail workers. When colleges and universities began to restructure along corporate lines in the early 2000s, white collar workers on campuses were loathe to join unionized campus employees who were mostly carpenters, painters, janitors and food service workers. When college and university Boards of Trustees, dominated by corporate executives began to demand budget cuts, layoffs hit administrative employees – most often women and men over 40 – from New Jersey to New Hampshire, from California to Michigan. The same austerity measures reduced the number of tenure track professors from ½ to ¼. 75% of teaching Phds work on temporary contracts. They are ever vulnerable to last minute cancellations, poverty wages and crushing commutes. ¼ of all teaching professors in the United States need some kind of public assistance to survive – cash aid, Supplemental Nutrition Assistance (formerly known as Food Stamps) or state medical insurance for low-income residents.
Looking around at the intent faces on the professors gathered in Teresitas it was clear that something fundamental had shifted. In the Spring of 2015, the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) and affiliated organizations Faculty Forward and Adjunct Action were organizing adjunct college teachers at campuses in 22 states. Instead of $15 an hour, they were asking for $15,000 a course. It was certainly a lot more than $15 an hour but it was meant to consider all their years of education, as well as the many hours they spent outside of the classroom doing research to plan a course, preparing for class, grading papers, meeting with and advising students. It was also intended to help cover the cost of medical insurance which few part time faculty are supplied by their employers.
That same Spring, on April 15, 2015 – Fight 4-15 – low-wage workers, including those I met in Tampa marched, sat in and disrupted traffic in 200 U.S. cities, 30 cities in the United Kingdom, cities and towns across Japan, Brazil, Chile and Korea and in 40 other countries across the globe. There is a new labor movement rising. And it will depend on new kinds of solidarity, new definitions of class, and painfully recast notions about what higher education can and cannot do for workers.