A mix of labor unions and civil rights groups kicked off a one-day, three-city Labor Day tour with an event at Nash Square.
Though the larger “Moral Monday” crowds took the holiday off, the few dozen activists who gathered downtown said most Americans back their efforts to improve workers’ wages and rights.
The activists referred to increasing the $7.25 an hour federal minimum wage, as well as expanding workers’ rights to unionize and collectively bargain, as legal, moral and religious imperatives. They noted that wages have stagnated even as corporate profits soar.
“If ever a Monday needed a moral makeover, it’s Labor Day,” said MaryBe McMillan, secretary-treasurer of the N.C. AFL-CIO. “Too many people in this country are underpaid and undervalued.”
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The gathering took particular aim at N.C. House Speaker and U.S. Senate candidate Thom Tillis for calling a minimum wage increase “dangerous.” Tillis has argued that artificially setting wages could harm the economy.
“I have serious concerns with the discussion around minimum wage because it drives up costs and it could harm jobs,” Tillis said last winter when President Obama proposed increasing the federal minimum wage to $10.10 an hour. “Obviously we want people to be paid a wage that could help make ends meet, but when you increase artificially the cost of labor to do a job, then oftentimes those jobs will just go away.”
Economists split on the issue. Some agree with Tillis, while others say the increased wages can spur spending and boost the economy. A Pew Center poll in January indicated that 73 percent of Americans favored Obama’s proposal, while more than a dozen states and a handful of localities have raised minimum wages since 2013.
In inflation-adjusted dollars, the federal minimum wage wavered between about $8 and $10 per hour from 1956 to 1981. It slipped through the 1980s, bottoming out at just over $6, and has not topped $7.90 in today’s dollars since.
“There’s only so low we can go in the race to the bottom,” McMillan said. “We’ve got to start realizing workers are the backbone of the economy. If they don’t have money to spend at businesses then the whole economy suffers.”
Since graduating from Milbrook High, Devan Durham has spent two years among the 6 percent of North Carolina workers that the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics says earns the minimum wage of $7.25 an hour. Speaking at the rally, he said he needs a raise.
Durham works at McDonald’s and plans to enroll at Miller-Motte College and study psychology. For now, he lives with siblings and takes three buses and 20 hours per week to commute. And he said such a profitable company – financial statements indicate McDonald’s earned $10.9 billion in profits, a 38 percent profit margin – can treat workers better.
“It’s not just that, it’s respect,” said Durham, who joined Raise Up N.C., a group dedicated to a $15 minimum wage for fast food workers. “They say we need them, they can always hire another person to take our spot. The respect level is really bad.”
Durham said he has not enrolled in the federal food stamps program. But many like him can use various government safety nets, which some regard as taxpayer subsidization of corporate labor costs.
McMillan noted that McDonald’s operates in Australia with a $15 minimum wage.
A $10.10 minimum wage could directly affect as many as 1 in 5 workers in the state, according to the Economic Policy Institute, a think tank based in Washington, D.C.
Tillis said the minimum wage likely couldn’t be undone, but generally disagreed with government setting a livable wage.
“I think for the most part the market needs to define that,” Tillis has said. “When we create artificial thresholds then you run into a big problem.”
State Republicans say a declining unemployment rate shows their policies are working. North Carolina’s rate has fallen from its recession peak of 11.3 percent in January 2010 to 6.2 percent. That decline has slightly outpaced the national recovery.
But some say unemployment figures mislead. Workforce participation in the state remains below 61 percent of adults, after oscillating between about 68 and 65 percent for decades. Retiring Baby Boomers account for some of the drop. But that gap also includes discouraged workers who gave up actively looking for a job, which the unemployment rate ignores.
The Labor Day rally sounded like the Moral Monday protests that have become a regular occurrence at the General Assembly since last year. Speakers slammed the Republican-controlled legislature and administration on the refusal of federal Medicaid expansion money and tax cuts they say help only the wealthy.
N.C. NAACP President Rev. William Barber blamed “extremism” rather than “Republicanism.” He quoted Dwight Eisenhower, who said if a party tried to abolish social safety nets or labor laws “you would not hear of that party again.” The former general then said of a “splinter group” advocating for as much: “Their number is negligible and they are stupid.”
“I did not say that,” Barber said after reading the quote. “A Republican said that.”
The group traveled on to Greensboro and Charlotte later in the day.