Politics & Government

Presidential candidate Julián Castro rallies with NC workers for $15 minimum wage

Democratic presidential candidate Julián Castro pointed toward the two luxury apartment buildings next to Durham Central Park, one built and the other still under construction.

“Here in Durham, this is a great example of a wonderful city, a city where you see a lot of housing being built,” Castro told reporters. “But a lot of that housing is luxury housing, and it is not affordable.”

Castro, the former housing secretary under President Barack Obama and former mayor of San Antonio, Texas, was in Durham Thursday to campaign and rally with the Fight for $15 movement. It’s a movement he said is necessary to make sure the lowest-paid workers in the country can afford rent.

“We need a living wage,” he said. “In this country, if you work 40 hours a week, you should be able to provide for your family. You can’t do that on a minimum wage that is just over $7 per hour.”

His visit makes him one of the first Democratic candidates, out of a field of 24 candidates, to visit North Carolina in the run up to the 2020 election. Former U.S. Rep. Beto O’Rourke visited the state last month.

The minimum wage in North Carolina (and the federal minimum) currently is $7.25 per hour, though other states — and some cities — have raised their minimum wages far higher.

But beyond raising the minimum wage, Castro said the country should invest more in affordable housing efforts. He said he plans to release his own plan on how to spur more affordable housing creation by the end of June.

“We can do a lot of things to create more affordable housing,” he said. “We can expand the low-income housing tax credit, we can expand the National Housing Trust Fund, we can invest in a big way in traditional tools like community development block grants ... and find other creative ways to spur the supply of affordable housing.”

He said the federal government needs to work with local communities more on the issue and commended officials in Durham for trying to create more affordable housing.

Affordable housing in Durham

With a surging population and a spike in rents over the past five years, affordable housing has become one of the leading political issues in Durham. The city is currently debating the topic of allowing more density in its neighborhoods, with Mayor Steve Schewel often repeating the mantra of “either we build more houses or the price of housing is going to go through the roof.”

Despite the growth the city has seen in downtown, the number of housing units hasn’t kept up with population growth, with an estimated 20 people moving to the city a day. From 2010 to 2015, there were 10,774 new households in Durham, but only 9,629 new housing units, according to “Expanding Housing Choices,” a new project of the Durham City-County Planning Department, The Herald-Sun has previously reported.

Castro called the issue urgent.

“I have traveled to over 100 different communities and 39 states while I was HUD secretary, and what I saw very clearly is you reach this tipping point,” he said. “If you don’t make the investment in housing supply that is affordable, then you are almost playing catch up and it’s almost too late.”

McDonald’s protest

Along with the Rev. William Barber II and several Durham officials, Castro joined a workers’ movement that has been especially active in the city in recent months. In April, protesters gathered in front of the McDonald’s on Hillsborough Road demanding more protection for low-wage workers from sexual harassment.

A 42-year-old woman who worked at the Hillsborough Road McDonald’s recently filed a complaint with the Raleigh branch of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, according to a previous News & Observer story. She said she faced repeated sexual harassment by employees and managers there.

Thursday, other women and men shared their stories of harassment on a stage in front of the downtown McDonald’s location.

Lois Jones, who said she had been sexually assaulted on the job, said McDonald’s “swept (her complaints) under a rug” and decreased her hours.

“We need to make McDonald’s talk to us,” she said. “Maybe we need a union.”

Barber, whose political origins started with the Moral Monday movement in North Carolina but now is a national figure, reiterated that suggestion.

“We will demand that every presidential candidate be for $15 and a union,” he said. “If you don’t stand with workers, we don’t stand with you.”

He called the current minimum wage “wicked” and a “sin.”

Castro, who briefly met with Barber, called for McDonald’s to pay its workers $15 per hour. He later distributed Fight for $15 pamphlets, which is backed by the Service Employees International Union, to McDonald’s employees working while the rally was going on.

“It is not acceptable to pay your workers a wage they can’t live on,” Castro said. “There are so many families out there, people that can’t afford the rent who are paying 50, 60, 70% of their income in rent.”

He cited Amazon — which paid $0 in federal income tax on more than $11 billion in profits last year — as another example of companies not paying their fair share to workers.

Brittney Razor, 27, of Durham, said she liked what she heard from Castro, though she added she is still undecided on who she supports for president in 2020.

“I think he was pretty awesome,” she said. “I liked everything he had to say, and he really seemed to believe it.”

Razor said she works at a McDonald’s in Durham and she is hopeful the Fight for $15 movement will lead to higher wages at the restaurant.

But Bertha Bradley, one of the leaders of the rally and a 60-year resident of Durham, was more convinced about her position on Castro.

“Oh, he’s awesome,” she said. “He’s got my vote. I’ve been (fighting for workers’ rights) for 40 years and it is just great to see it being recognized.”

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Zachery Eanes is the Innovate Raleigh reporter for The News & Observer and The Herald-Sun. He covers technology, startups and main street businesses, biotechnology, and education issues related to those areas.