There was singing, rapping and a whole lot of cheering in the Rotunda of the State Capitol Tuesday (Feb. 25) during a lively rally in support of raising Minnesota’s minimum wage on the opening day of the 2014 Legislature. Organized by Raise the Wage MN, a coalition of labor groups, faith-based organizations and the nonprofit community, the rally included words of support from politicians and workers alike, and featured a musical performance by rapper Brother Ali and Native drummers who closed out the event.
Hundreds of people in the Rotunda who carried signs and wore “Raise the Wage” T-shirts began dancing during Brother Ali’s opening set, which established a tone of jubilant expectation for the rest of the rally. Brother Ali sang the song, “Work Everyday,“ about his own experiences as a worker. Ali, who began living on his own at the age of 17 and was homeless for part of his life, has lived off low-paying, manual labor jobs such as stocking shelves, loading trucks and doing everything from shining shoes to cutting grass. The way the economy is structured now, Ali sees all of the benefits and profits “going straight to the top,” he said in an interview before the rally.
“Nothing is going to change until there’s a broad people’s movement,” he said. “What we have to see is a popular movement, a much broader movement. You can have all the elections you want, all the movement by representatives you want, but until people really get a grasp for the real state of affairs, I think the average person isn’t going to be engaged enough to understand the power that’s being taken away from common people.”
Among the throng at the Capitol demanding a raise in the wage was a contingent from Centro de Trabajadores Unidos en Lucha (CTUL), an organization that supports the fight for better wages, living conditions and a stronger workers’ voice in the workplace. According to CTUL’s Ruth Schulz, the rally was a kickoff to a week of actions of people coming together to support minimum wage. Besides pressuring lawmakers, Schulz said CTUL also wants to put pressure on corporations such as Target and Walmart to take an active role in supporting the minimum wage raise.
Enrique Barcenas, a CTUL member who spoke at the rally, currently make $8 an hour working for Prestige, a contracting firm that cleans Target properties. “We are here to raise our voices for all the workers making poverty wages,” Barcenas said.
Other groups looking out for particular constituencies — from those advocating for older citizens to young people just joining the work force — also came out to support the minimum wage. Where advocates for older Minnesotans said that a higher minimum wage would help support seniors who can’t get by on Social Security alone, young people made the case that a higher minimum wage would help support the rising costs of going to college.
Erin Parrish, from the Mnnesota Women’s Consortium, called the minimum wage fight a gender issue, with women making up 60 percent of minimum wage workers.
Peggy Flanagan, executive director of the Children’s Defense Fund</strong>, served as MC for the rally. “Nobody working full time should have to live in poverty,” Flanagan said at the rally. “Raising the minimum wage is good for business, it’s good for workers, and it’s good for Minnesota families.”
According to Flanagan, organizers “need to work on folks reaching out to their legislators. We have a lot of support from the House, but we need support from the Senate side.”
One worker, Jim Parsons, with Working America, a program of the AFL-CIO, said that now is the time to raise the wage, since the recession is finally over and profits for big businesses are going up. It’s time, he said, to support the people “who have been holding up the economy.”
“The reality is too many Minnesotans are still struggling to make ends meet,” said DFL Speaker of the House Paul Thissen. “Too many Minnesotans simply don’t earn enough money to feed their family. That’s simply wrong, and we’re going to fix that this year.” Thissen said raising the wage will put money back into the economy. “It’s actually going to grow jobs and make the state a stronger state for everybody,” he said.
DFL Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk also spoke at the rally, beginning his remarks with a comment that Walmart was trying to put a store on the Iron Range, an announcement that drew boos from the crowd. Bakk vowed to put a minimum wage bill on the Governor’s desk but was not specific about what it might contain, what its chances might be for passage or how committed he is to its passage.
Bakk has expressed concern about a minimum wage increase possibly posing a burden for small businesses. But he did say he intends to vote for some sort of minimum wage increase. Democrats in the House and Gov, Mark Dayton have agreed to push for a raise in the minimum wage to $9.50-per-hour, more than a 50-percentincrease from the current $6.15 an hour, which applies to small businesses not subject to federal wage laws (the federal minimum wage is $7.25).