RICHMOND — A person attending the activist group Fight for $15's march in Richmond could easily have mistaken it for a protest by the Black Lives Matter movement rather than one for a $15 minimum wage, the march's stated purpose.
This was intentional on the part of the event's organizers, mainly the Service Employees International Union, which hopes to use the fervor from the protests against police shootings of African-American males to fuel the political push to for a higher minimum wage.
Indeed, that was the purpose behind having the rally in Richmond. The key event was a march to a statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee. The organizers hoped to link opponents of a higher minimum wage to proponents of slavery. In each case, they argued, African Americans were denied their rights and forced to live in dire economic circumstances.
"Labor without a living wage is nothing but a pseudo-form of slavery," said Rev. William Barber, during the event's concluding speech, given in front of the Lee statue, on Richmond's monument avenue.
"We abolished slavery more than 150 years ago, but its legacy is still felt in economic policies and working conditions that hold back Black and Latino working people across America," said Sepia Coleman, a home care worker from Memphis.
A press release by the movement included the headline: "Push to Confront Combined Effects of 400 years of Slavery, Segregation, 40 Years of Union Busting; Ties Deepen Between Racial, Economic Justice Movements."
Speakers made frequent comparisons between working minimum wage jobs and being forced to work on a southern plantation. The rhetoric appealed to the largely African-American protesters bussed in for the event from places as far away as Florida, New York, Michigan and Kansas.
It made sense to Randy Purcell, a Durham, N.C., activist, who said both movements were "very integrated" ideologically and rejected the idea that police shootings and workers' wages were separate issues. "Black people have been fighting for their rights for years."
Camilla Byrd, also from Durham, put it this way: "If you go to a McDonald's, you don't see Caucasians" behind the counter, "if you get what I am saying. It is mostly black people working these jobs."
Several protesters wore T-shirts with the words "Hands Up! Don't Shoot" written on them. The event itself resembled a summer music concert more than it did a traditional political rally, with hip-hop performers regularly taking the stage to keep the crowd energized.
The effort to link the minimum wage push with Black Lives Matter represented an attempt by SEIU to further bolster their effort, which has gotten considerable traction over the last year. In addition to getting states like California and New York to adopt the rate, the Democratic Party has made it part of their official platform. Union organizers hope the additional injection of fervor from the civil rights movement will give the minimum wage push added traction.
Labor unions have long favored high minimum wages because they make cheaper, nonunion labor less economically competitive. The higher the minimum wage, the lower the difference between union-negotiated pay rates and non-union rates. That creates less opposition from employers to using unionized labor.