Wielding signs reading “Laborers are $15 worth of respect” and “Up with wages, down with excuses,” several hundred protesters gathered in downtown Durham Tuesday night to advocate raising the minimum wage to $15.
“A lot of people say that money isn’t happiness, but hey, money does get you what you need — what you have to have in order to survive,” said Naquasia LeGrand, a former Kentucky Fried Chicken employee and a speaker at the protest.
“We’re tired of pennies — we want change, but not pennies,” she said.
North Carolina’s current minimum wage is $7.25, but the cost of living for one adult working full time is $10.53. The living wage for one adult and one child is $21.63, according to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
“Stand up and demand to enjoy the fruit of your labor, because when you labor, but you can’t enjoy the fruit of your labor, that’s nothing but pseudo-slavery,” said the Rev. William Barber II, president of the North Carolina NAACP and the face of the Moral Monday movement.
“Let the politicians try to live off $11,000 a year — let the owner of McDonald’s live off $11,000 a year.”
Protesters marched from CCB Plaza to Durham City Hall, escorted by officers from the Durham Police Department.
UNC junior Richard Lindayen, who attended the rally, said the protest was an important way to help low-wage workers make their voices heard, particularly those from UNC’s campus.
“It’s really important that we have UNC students out here today because we have workers on our campus who are not making living wages,” he said.
“Living wage is defined by making enough to support yourself and your family, to have food, to have the money to pay for child care, things like that.”
In June 2014, the Seattle City Council approved a $15 minimum wage in Seattle, Washington, which will be implemented gradually over the next three to seven years.
“This is one of the most important race and social justice-related legislation enacted, most positively impacting people of color, women and immigrants,” Seattle council member Bruce Harrell said in a June 2014 press release.
“We must continue working with small businesses and the ethnic minority community to support their growth and help them succeed.”
Of the 2.3 million hourly wage workers in North Carolina, 5.8 percent of workers earn minimum wage or less — compared to 11 percent of hourly wage workers in Seattle.
Though other states and localities such as Seattle have raised the minimum wage, the Republican-controlled N.C. General Assembly is unlikely to adopt such a measure, said John Dinan, politics and international affairs professor at Wake Forest University.
“The purpose of rallies of this sort is to try to generate media coverage and public attention and thereby try to elevate the issue onto the legislative agenda,” Dinan said in an email.
“But even with these efforts, the recent historical record indicates that measures to boost the minimum wage have not gone very far in Republican-controlled states without an initiative process.”
Mike Walden, economics professor at N.C. State University, said the issue will likely come up during the 2016 gubernatorial race.
Though the movement has gained political traction — attracting support from presidential hopeful Sen. Bernie Sanders, D-Vt. — the issue is popular only because it sounds good, not because it is the most efficient way to redistribute wealth, Stephen Lich, a UNC economics lecturer said.
“Voters and constituents have it in their minds that the minimum wage is a way of helping the working poor, at low or no obvious cost to the government,” he said.
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“That’s a big change, and we can expect to see pretty big effects — and I don’t think they’re going to be good for the wage earners.”
Such a large wage increase could result in disemployment for the very low-wage workers in need of the increase, Lich said. Businesses would compensate for the added costs of wages by laying off workers and allowing technology to take their place.
Walden said many proponents of the $15 minimum wage movement lack an understanding of the economics at stake.
“With any public policy change, there are going to be good impacts and there are going to be bad impacts,” he said.
“Clearly, it would have an economic benefit for those workers who are working at minimum wage jobs — the downside is how many of those workers will keep their jobs.”
A better way to redistribute wealth would be to do it directly, not through a mechanism such as the minimum wage, Lich said.
“If you want to redistribute wealth, redistribute wealth — the end,” he said. “Don’t do it through some awkward policy, do it directly.”