Tampa workers call for federal $15 minimum wage and honor devoted labor activist Martin Luther King Jr.

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Two months ago, more than 60% of Florida voters voted to increase the state minimum wage to $15 an hour by 2026. Today, fast food workers and cashiers in Tampa—and at least 14 other cities across the country—went on strike to honor the birthday of civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. and to uplift a federal $15 minimum wage.

“To be in a position now where we have multiple people coming out...Nobody is as scared no more,” Alex Harris, a local fast food worker with Fight for $15 and a Union, told Creative Loafing Tampa Tampa Bay, as a car caravan honked horns outside a McDonald's in East Tampa. “Everybody is starting to take a stand and realize how strong your voice is. How strong voting is. It just, you know, it definitely hypes us up and it keeps us going.”

Today’s national worker strike is particularly timely following President-Elect Joe Biden’s announced stimulus plan Thursday night. In a speech not 24 hours before the Fight for $15 action took place, Biden shared his administration’s stimulus plan for when he is to be inaugurated into office in a week’s time. Included in this plan is a call to increase the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour—which would have the rest of the country join the eight states and dozens of cities nationwide that are already on track towards a $15 minimum wage. 

“I’m not surprised,” Harris said, when asked about Biden’s recently-announced stimulus plan. Harris said he knew that Biden had publicly supported a federal minimum wage boost for some time, as a position that Biden had quietly campaigned on during the 2020 Presidential Election. “We just hope he keeps his word. As long as he does that, we’re excited,” Harris said.

Raising the federal minimum wage would increase wages for more than 23 million Americans, according to the UC Berkeley Labor Center, which examined the public cost of the Raise the Wage Act introduced by Congress in 2019. The Economic Policy Institute has reported that low-wage workers today are forced to work longer hours just to achieve the bare minimum standards of living compared to workers half a century ago, in part due to decline in purchasing power.

“Florida just passed [a $15 minimum wage initiative], as divided as that state is, they just passed it,” Biden said in a speech Thursday night. “The rest of the country is ready to move as well.”

Remembering Dr. King

In his lifetime, King was a devoted activist for labor rights, including safe working conditions, the right to form a union, and increased pay for workers. King identified as a democratic socialist, a fact often sanitized from his history. This placed his ideological perspective in one devoted to supporting the working class struggle—the struggle for social, racial, and economic justice for all. 

The night before King’s assasination in April of 1968, King gave a speech to striking sanitation workers in Memphis, Tennessee, in which he shared: “The masses of people are rising up. And wherever they are assembled today, whether they are in Johannesburg, South Africa; Nairobi, Kenya; Accra, Ghana; New York City; Atlanta, Georgia; Jackson, Mississippi; or Memphis, Tennessee, the cry is always the same: ‘We want to be free.’”

King situated the concept of “freedom” within the context of racial equality for Black Americans and economic equality—which he, and those who share his political ideology perceive as inextricably linked to the welfare of people of color and democracy more broadly.—McKenna Schueler

01/15/2021 | Photos by Dave Decker