By Jim Miller
Last February, in the lead up to the National Adjunct Day of Action, I noted in this column that, “most colleges in America run on the backs of adjunct instructors who don’t receive the same pay for the same work as do the shrinking pool of full-time faculty” and that the “Exploitation of contingent labor is not just a problem for employees at Starbucks, Walmart, and fast food chains where workers are fighting for $15 an hour; it is an epidemic in the academy as well.”
During that day of protest, Fight for 15 organizers stood with us and this week, on 4/15 at 4 PM at Scripps Cottage on San Diego State University’s campus, we will stand with them as teachers and students from across the city will come together with workers, community activists, people of faith, and others to call for basic fairness and economic justice for all working people.
In doing so we will be joining a movement that has taken root across the county.
For instance, in Chicago the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) recently proposed that all Chicago Public School employees receive at least $15 an hour. In demanding this, they made it clear that paying school employees a living wage is just a part of a bigger picture. As In These Times reported, the Chicago Teachers see paying workers a living wage as inextricably bound to improving education and our society as a whole:
“You can’t expect schools to solve all of the problems of the country,” says CTU acting president Jesse Sharkey. “One of the solutions is to pay parents and contract workers a living wage. It’s very important to locate demand for better education within the demands for a society that treats working class people better. Chicago Public Schools should lead by example.”
Thus the Fight for 15 is not just about the struggles of fast food workers to make a decent wage. It is also about the plight of low wage and contingent workers across the American economy.
Again from In These Times:
The goals of their movement quickly resonated among the nation’s low-wage workers. Taking the most recent available numbers from 2014, about half of all women workers and more than 40 percent of the workforce as a whole earned less than $15 an hour, according to the Economic Policy Institute. Equally important, the movement captured the imagination of the broader citizenry, offering a vivid contrast with the ultra-rich 1 percent, just as the debate over economic inequality took root in the body politic.
A renewed fast food worker spring offensive now underway shows how the movement has grown in size and sophistication as well as ambition and influence. The actions planned for this spring will reach out to low-wage workers in many industries and corporations, hoping to trigger new and broader campaigns both to organize unions and improve pay and working conditions.
Along with our colleagues in Chicago, teachers here in San Diego know that the effort to address the plight of underpaid, part-time workers does not just affect our adjunct instructors but also our students and the community we serve. That is why the American Federation of Teachers Local 1931 is proud to be a part of the Fight for 15. Most of the profound obstacles our students face in the community colleges are rooted in the economic injustice of poverty and our historic level of income inequality that disproportionately affects communities of color from which the majority of our students come.
Simply put, when students have to choose between putting food on the table or buying books, providing childcare or attending class, or any of the myriad of other impossible dilemmas they frequently face, academic achievement suffers. We can talk all we want about our educational system doing more to foster better outcomes for our most underprepared students—the roses that rise through the cracks in the concrete that is poverty and systemic discrimination—but those roses will never have the room to fully bloom until we stop pouring concrete.
What the Fight for 15 represents is a call to begin to build a society that treats working people better, and it will help to make all of our communities more fertile gardens for everyone. It is not just about stopping the exploitation of fast food workers, or providing benefits with service sector jobs, or halting the effort to turn professional work into contingent labor; it’s about raising us all up. Every worker in America deserves a living wage, dignity, and respect.
When we allow our neighbors to fall behind, we are all the lesser. As the old labor slogan puts it, “An injury to one is an injury to all.”