Dawn Oneal makes less than $10 an hour as an early child care worker in DeKalb County, Georgia. Her husband, however, remains unemployed, occasionally finding construction jobs.
“I am paid $8.50 an hour for taking care of America’s greatest asset,” said Oneal, 48, a member with the Service Employees International Union leading the “Fight for $15” campaign. “Life in DeKalb County is hard. The Fight for 15 and Black Lives Matter go hand-in-hand. It was time to take a stand.”
Oneal and four other panelists participated in a forum Sept. 18 called “From Ferguson to $15: The Economic Path Forward” during the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation’s 45th Annual Legislative Conference at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center in Northwest.
Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minnesota) led the discussion and informed the audience on legislation geared to ensure Blacks are treated equally at work and in the community.
Ellison and presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vermont) both introduced legislation this summer in the House and Senate, respectively, to raise the national minimum wage from $7.25 an hour to $15 an hour.
Sanders, a Democratic presidential candidate, also introduced a bill Sept. 17 called the “Justice Is Not for Sale Act” with Ellison and two other fellow House Democrats to ban private prisons.
“The system is broken. A core government function is public safety. Why would we privatize essentially a core function of government? Because it makes some people a lot of money,” Ellison said. “We are fighting on two fronts: the fight for dignity in reference to the criminal justice system and the fight for economic dignity.”
According to a U.S. Census Bureau report on income and poverty released during the caucus, Blacks had the lowest median income among all races last year at $35,398, compared to more than $60,000 for whites. It also highlights the estimated unemployment rate among blacks exceeds 10 percent, double that of whites.
A Pew Research Center survey conducted in 2013 outlined 70 percent of Blacks said those in their community are treated less fairly than whites when dealing with the police, compared to 37 percent of whites who agree.
Kendall Fells said Blacks are most affected by low wages which hurt their communities.
“Organizing is a skill set that is essential to African American communities,” said Fells, organizing director of Fight for $15. “These workers have been able to change the politics in this country.”
Fells announced a Fight for $15 rally will take place Nov. 10 in 230 cities nationwide with a platform to demand businesses and politicians to increase pay for low wage workers that include fast-food employees.
Tefere Gebre, executive vice president with the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO), said eight out of 10 Blacks join a union, versus four out of 10 whites.
“Unions have a history of helping Black people,” he said. “Without a union, there would not be a Black middle class.”
Tyrone Heath of Pittsburgh joined a union this year after working at least five years as a home care worker. He receives less than $600 every two weeks with no holiday pay, no sick days and no health insurance.
“I’m a five-time felon but I’ve been clean since 2002 staying out of trouble,” Heath, 40, said. “I came to let people here at the caucus know what is going on. I am one of many people who struggle to make it, but I have no place to go but up.”