In front of the Taco Bell on the Midtown stretch of Poplar Avenue, Sepia Coleman, a longtime home healthcare worker, was at the bullhorn. She was about to give her testimony to a group of about 100 workers and their families.
Their Labor Day started as the sun rose, with an action coordinated by the Show Me $15 campaign outside the McDonald’s restaurant just west of here.
“They’ll hire you part-time and work you full-time,” Coleman said into the microphone. “It’s wage theft.”
After two decades of working in home healthcare, a job she calls her passion, Coleman said she makes $9 an hour. Her doctor has told her she needs surgery, but her lack of benefits and paid time off also will make that nearly impossible. To supplement her pay, she picks up private care-taking jobs on her days off.
The Memphis chapter of the Show Me $15 campaign has been working to bring together people earning close to minimum wage such as fast-food, home health and campus workers. On Monday, the Memphis chapter joined about 400 cities across the country in a national day of action calling for an increase in the minimum wage and the right to union representation.
The Fight for $15 movement is less than five years old, but has sparked a wave of minimum wage increases across the country, according to a December 2016 report from the National Employment Law Project. When fully phased in, the wage increases by states, local governments and corporations will total nearly $62 billion and benefit 19 million workers.
Voters approved minimum wage increases in California, New York, Arizona, Colorado and Maine, but most of the victories have skipped the South. In fact, every state in the South, including Tennessee, has passed pre-emptive legislation that limits cities from raising their own local minimum wage requirements.
In the hour they stood outside of Taco Bell, workers and their families chanted and heard testimonies. Then they entered the dining room, telling workers behind the counter that they “had their back.”
After stopping traffic a few times, workers marched down Evergreen Street, through the historic district, toward Trinity United Methodist Church.
At the church was the 15th annual Faith and Labor picnic, hosted by the Workers Interfaith Network. After a long morning of work, the demonstrators were greeted by clapping and cheering. Among the dunk tank, baked goods table and music, the workers came in chanting and found support and joy.
This story is brought to you by MLK50: Justice Through Journalism, a nonprofit reporting project on economic justice in Memphis. Support independent journalism by making a tax-deductible donation today.