Last night members of Workers Interfaith Network joined together with the United Campus Workers and the Progressive Student Alliance to kick off a campaign for a living wage wage at the University of Memphis. The heart of the community forum we held were talks given by two courageous custodial workers who spoke out about the poverty wages and unfair conditions that come with their jobs.
As I took part in the forum, I felt a lot of different emotions at the same time. I was angry at the conditions that Emma Davis and Thelma Rimmer described. All workers at the University have faced a pay freeze for over three years now. While a lack of a raise is a challenge for anyone, when your pay is around $8 an hour, it becomes a crisis. Ms. Davis shared how painful it is for her when one of her two children ask her for something that she can't provide. "When you're making $80,000 a year, you don't have to turn your kids away," she said. "I have to because I have to pay my bills.
At the forum, we talked about Dr. David Ciscel's study produced earlier this year, that shows that a living wage is $11.62 an hour in families of four, where two parents are able to work. But since publishing the study, family health care premiums at the University have jumped 32 percent, to $335 a month.
When your pay is just $1,300 a month, this is an unbearable burden. Ms. Davis is now facing a crisis of how to care for her health problems because she makes too much to get TennCare coverage, but she can't afford the University coverage.
Equally upsetting is the attitude of some supervisors that Ms. Rimmer and Ms. Davis described. They both said that when they have asked about pay raises, supervisors have told them "you should be happy to have a job." Ms. Rimmer put it well when she said, "yes it's good to have a job, but you need a paying job." Supervisors have also told them that they can't do anything about the fact that when they arrive at work at 3:00 a.m., there is no air conditioning, even in the hottest days of the summer.
There was plenty to be upset about. But I was also inspired at the courage of these two women in speaking out. It would be easy to keep silence out of a fear of losing their jobs in these tough times. But as Ms. Rimmer said, "I'm speaking up for those who are afraid to speak up. I'm standing here to make a way for the next person, for my kids, and for your kids."
All of us who care about workers rights need to be prepared to take action with these workers if they experience any retaliation for speaking out at last night's forum.
And I was inspired by the response of the students, staff, faculty, and community members who took part in the forum. Progressive Student Alliance member Gaby Marquez wanted Mr. Davis and Ms. Rimmer to know that even though their work goes unnoticed, that it is appreciated by students like her. "My mother cleaned houses, so I know some of where you're coming from. I can promise you that when I see President Raines, I will be bringing up the living wage with her."
While campaigning for a living wage in this economy is an uphill struggle, we also reflected last night on other wage victories in our state. I shared the story of how the campaign for a living wage ordinance with the City Council was long and hard-fought, but successful. Tom Smith, an organizer with the United Campus Workers, shared how organizing at the University of Tennessee-Knoxville significantly raised workers' pay there. When he worked at the UTK Library, he saw his pay raised $3,000 over a three year period because of organizing for a living wage by the union and community allies.
Even if you couldn't join us, I hope you're inspired to join these workers in taking action for a living wage.
Ready to join the struggle? You can start by signing our electronic petition to President Raines. And, if you're not already on the list to get email alerts from WIN, sign up now so you'll know about future actions in this campaign.