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Living wage campaign leans on July 4 symbolism

by Amy Kingsley

Most people spend the federal July 4 holiday distancing themselves as much as possible from the problems of the workaday world. But last week, about 30 people gathered in the parking lot of Faith Community Church used the day off to draw attention to the plight of low-wage workers.

The event, featuring a slate of speakers and entertainers, marked the official kickoff of a campaign to raise the minimum wage in Greensboro to $8.50 an hour. Members of the Greensboro Minimum Wage Organizing Committee planned the event after more than a year of small group meetings.

Between July and November, the committee plans to collect 10,000 signatures on a petition they will present to the City Council. Their effort follows similar successful projects in San Francisco and Santa Fe, NM where citizens nudged the local minimum wage up to $8.50 an hour.

‘“A living wage is actually $12 an hour,’” said Marilyn Baird, a co-coordinator of the committee. ‘“Even $8.50 is not enough to live on, but at least it’s a start.’”

Early in the afternoon, many of the attendees snacked on food prepared by Food Not Bombs and rode tricked-out three-wheel bicycles around the concrete parking lot. At around 1:30 p.m., the festivities commenced with a brief concert by Cakalak Thunder drum corps.

Later, Jim Boyett, the other co-coordinator, spoke about the need for an increased minimum wage, mostly by emphasizing how inflation has decreased low-wage earners buying power.

‘“All that it really amounts to is that things are harder today for young people,’” Boyett said.

A colorful mock-up of the Statue of Liberty greeted festivalgoers from the corner of Arlington Street and Martin Luther King, Jr. Drive. Boyett said the timing of July 4th and the symbolism of the statue reinforced the committee’s message. President Franklin D. Roosevelt once said, ‘“Necessitous men are not free men,’” a message organizers used to tie their minimum wage proposal to the Independence Day holiday.

Boyett, a retired member of the US Marine Corps, first discovered the need for higher wages when he opened a private law practice in 1989. The bulk of his clients needed help filing for bankruptcy.

‘“When the textile industry started closing down hundreds and thousands of people lost their jobs,’” he said. ‘“Especially for the older people, when they lost their jobs there wasn’t anything they could do but minimum wage work. It was really a disaster.’”

Boyett said he anticipates challenges. After the committee submits the petition to the Greensboro City Council, the body can dispose of it two ways: by implementing the raise or putting it on the ballot for public vote. Boyett said he thinks the council will try to avoid taking any action by using loopholes in the law, although he did not specify which ones.

Another fundamental challenge he listed was convincing Greensboro citizens that they can make this happen.

‘“There’s a lot of support for this action,’” he said, ‘“but there’s also a lot of skepticism.’”

But if the proposal finds its way onto a ballot, the retired lawyer said he expects no less than an 80 percent majority.

To comment on this story, e-mail Amy Kingsley at amy@yesweekly.com

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