Twenty minutes before the start of the ¡Fight 4/15!/¡Lucha por 15! rally on April 15, Charlene Carruthers was still distributing T-shirts. “I’m Young, I’m Black, and I want $15!” read the front of each shirt, the back: “…and a union!” Almost everyone was wearing one in the small courtyard at the University of Illinois at Chicago in which Carruthers stood. The shirts did not hold universal appeal. (“Do you have any others?” a young white student asked.) But that was not the point of handing them out. They were part of a larger statement, a symbol of the campaign that Carruthers has been waging for the past few months.
Carruthers and the organization she heads, the racial justice coalition Black Youth Project 100 (BYP100), were there to take part in the union-sponsored national day of action calling for a federal minimum wage of fifteen dollars. But they were no ordinary protesters. Since the launch of Fight for 15, Carruthers has been plugging what she sees as a complementary narrative: that the struggles of workers and minorities are inextricably linked. The fight for a higher minimum wage is not without racial and ethnic undertones, as even the Spanish-language addition to the rally’s official name, “¡Lucha por 15!”, suggested. Of the thirty-one percent of workers in Chicago who make thirteen dollars per hour or less, twenty-seven percent are black and thirty-eight percent are Hispanic.
The minimum wage in Chicago is scheduled to increase to thirteen dollars an hour from ten dollars by 2019, at which point it will be indexed to inflation, as laid out in a proposal approved by the City Council in December of last year. The plan places the city with the likes of New York and Los Angeles, where mayoral proposals would have a similar effect, yet still behind cities like Seattle where the wage will rise to fifteen dollars for all workers by 2021 and San Francisco, where it will rise to fifteen by 2018. Chicago’s wage hike, which the city reports would affect nearly 410,000 workers, seems to have done little to satisfy organized labor and activists like Carruthers, who argue that racial and economic progress are inherently intertwined.
“We see our work as squarely focusing on making sure that the narrative of racial justice is integrated into how people talk about the Fight for 15,” Carruthers told me. A press team danced around her, coordinating calls and collecting quotes, which she delivered bluntly and unapologetically. Outside the Jane Addams Hull House at UIC, where BYP100 staff prepared for the demonstration, protestors-to-be stood among picnic tables stocked with juice boxes, protein bars and homemade signs. Thirty high-school students (some of whom came, they admitted, “for the extra credit”) stood in a circle practicing union cheers.
The night George Zimmerman was ruled innocent in the murder of Trayvon Martin, members of what would become BYP100 convened for the first time in Chicago. “That’s how we got our name,” said Malcolm London, co-chair of BYP100’s Chicago Chapter, in an interview last summer with NPR. “We started off as one hundred black activists. That night we were all in a room holding hands when the verdict dropped, and America reminded us that black lives were not valued.” The Zimmerman verdict helped to launch a new era of black activism. High-profile cases of police brutality, including the killings of unarmed black men and women, have fueled increasing outrage inside and outside the black community. The vast online infrastructure that has emerged to support those movements has in part fueled the rise of activists like Carruthers, a self-described “black queer feminist” who holds back little. Carruthers, a South Side native, has a Master of Social Work from Washington University in St. Louis and an acerbic presence on social media. Using Twitter as a weapon and a megaphone, she frequently references her radical forebears, at times going as far as to condemn those promoting nonviolence.
In the scheme of history, the idea that the struggles for racial and economic justice are different battles in the same war is not new. Collaboration has been a crucial tool in the arsenal of each movement. Unions provided the Civil Rights movement with some of its staunchest support in the 1960s. Walter Reuther, president of the United Automobile Workers, famously represented the UAW on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial during Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech.
Beyond serving as a bridge between the racial and economic sides of the issue, BYP100’s presence brought to the rally the momentum and anger over the treatment of African-Americans that has been building since the deaths of Martin, Michael Brown, and others since. Carruthers and her team were ready to add their own message of racial justice to the overarching theme of the rally. Though the sight of BYP100 organizers Janae Bonsu and Charles Preston forcefully injecting shouts of “Black lives matter” into the sea of cheers may have seemed misplaced to the casual observer, the phrase could not have been more relevant to the rally’s message in the context of 2015.
In throwing its support behind the rally, BYP100 articulated how the gap between the minimum wage and the so-called “living wage” acutely affects the city’s African-American population. Signs screamed out in large font that almost half of Chicago’s African-American workers are paid a minimum wage or lower. The stories that Bonsu and Preston told the crowd about their own families struggling to survive on meager wages created a chance to focus on the unique hardships that come with being poor and black in America.
The Fight for 15 faces a long road ahead. Fierce Congressional opposition to significantly raising the federal minimum and a host of economic surveys that label the move a “job-killer” lie in its way. The protest likely represented no more than a sentence in the latest chapter of Chicago’s long and complicated history with both labor and race. Rather, its significance lay in the timely confluence of two accelerating movements for social change.
“Racial justice is economic justice!” Bonsu shouted just before leaving the stage. In a reflection of how accepted that idea has become, the crowd didn’t hesitate to cheer just as loudly as it had before.