Willietta Dukes was in D.C. over the weekend celebrating the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington. "It was amazing," she said. "It was liberating for me" to see so many people fired up for civil rights and equality in America.
This week, the 39-year-old Dukes is back in Durham, where she works at a Burger King on West Club Boulevard. Her title is guest ambassador, which makes her a team leader and responsible for many duties, including greeting customers, refilling their drinks, training new hires and making sure the toilets stay clean. It's a job she loves and one she's good at, she told me.
Nonetheless, Dukes vows to walk off the job for the day Thursday to protest her low pay—just $7.85 an hour for limited hours—joining a national movement by labor leaders against the epidemic of low-wage work in America.
Dukes will be in Raleigh Thursday for a "Strike Day" rally at Martin Street Baptist Church, starting at 3:30 p.m. The Rev. William Barber will keynote. Organizers predict walkouts by one or more workers at 30 restaurants across the state and hundreds across the country. Their goal is $15 an hour, a living wage.
A half-century after the Aug. 28, 1963, March on Washington and Dr. Martin Luther King's immortal "I Have a Dream" speech, we marvel at how far we've come in fighting racism. We should also be alarmed—no, enraged—at the way we've failed in the fight for economic equality.
As we mark this important anniversary and enjoy our Labor Day weekend, we should remember that the movement King led, and the 1963 march, was for "Jobs and Freedom."
To King, the two were inseparable. Without a job that sustains a man, a woman or a family, the promise of freedom is an empty one.
"I love my job, but what am I supposed to do?" said Dukes, an African-American mom who's worked in the fast-food industry for 15 years while raising two children. Yes, she's nervous about what might happen to her. But she's determined to take a stand. "I don't expect to get rich, but I need to support myself. I want to be able to pay my basics, my rent and utilities. How can I survive on 27 or 28 hours a week?"
Two months ago, Dukes was cut back to less than 30 hours a week. Corporations that feed on low-wage workers are intent on avoiding the employer mandate under the Affordable Care Act. Companies will be required to either offer their full-time employees health insurance or pay a fine.
Though President Obama postponed the employer mandate until 2015, some wretched companies have insisted on making a point now, at the expense of their workers, that they won't be pushed around by Obama.
It's a point that's easy to make when unemployment is high and they can hire plenty of part-time help cheap. But this country gave up the goal of full employment years ago.
Labor Day, indeed.
On Monday, the Pew Research Center issued a report, "King's Dream Remains an Elusive Goal," showing that the gaps in wealth and income between blacks and whites in America are bigger now—worse, that is—than in 1970.
In 1970, the median household income gap between racial groups was $19,360; now it's $27,414, the Pew report stated. Incredibly, the gap in household wealth between whites and blacks is almost $85,000; median household wealth for blacks is still barely above zero.
The fact that low-wage work is proliferating is as much a function of rampant capitalism as of racism. The combination of corporate globalization and communications technologies stripped the United States of factory work and white-collar jobs in customer service support. As these former middle-class jobs have departed to other countries, however, service-sector work, including retail and fast-food restaurants, have grown apace.
But tell me if there's a racial or sexist component to this: Factory work, a century ago, was also dirty and low-paid, done mainly by white males. It was redefined as middle-class by labor unions that stepped in to organize workers and increase their pay. It was redefined by a nation that came out of the Great Depression and World War II with an ethos that America prospered when all of its citizens prospered.
We could, if we chose to, redefine the new low-wage work in the same way, by insisting that employers pay a living wage. There really is no reason why the woman who cleans your hotel room—probably Hispanic—or who serves your burger—probably black—should make less than the guy who put the screw in the bolt of your engine back in the day.
Do we need unions to accomplish this? Not necessarily. Congress could do it by law. In the absence of a strong union movement, however, or a Democratic Party that rediscovers its New Deal principles—something that's unlikely to happen without strong unions—don't count on it.
We should pressure Congress, says MaryBe McMillan, secretary-treasurer of the state AFL-CIO, to raise the minimum wage and crack down on employers who cheat their workers out of retirement benefits by paying them under the table or as "independent contractors." Unions must be allowed to organize.
"More than that," McMillan says, "we have to change the mindset in this country that it's OK to work for peanuts. There's no reason [these corporations] can't pay workers $15 an hour and still make billions. Their CEOs make 350 times what the workers make. I think it's time to ask, how much is enough?"