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St. Pete City Councilmembers join Fight for 15! movement

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Three members of the St. Petersburg City Council joined activists rallying for a $15 an hour wage and a right to unionize on Tuesday, a “National Day of Disruption” led by organized labor to raise the living wage for low-income workers.

“Let’s be clear. The Fight for $15, it’s a lot more than getting $15 an hour,” said Council member Darden Rice. “It’s about dignity, and it’s about respect.”

The noon time rally in front of St. Pete City Hall was one of three such events taking place in the Tampa/St. Petersburg region on Tuesday, and one of hundreds taking place across 340 U.S cities.

A 6 a.m. rally in front of a McDonald’s in East Tampa kicked off the local activities, which was to conclude with a major rally later in the day at Centennial Park in Ybor City.

The movement to raise Florida’s minimum wage from its current $8.05 an hour rate has gone nowhere legislative in the Sunshine State since the battle began in 2012. Former Miami Dade Democratic Senator Dwight Bullard sponsored bills moving the minimum wage up to $10.10 in 2014 and 2015 that never received a hearing, a similar fate that occurred earlier this year when he proposed raising it to $15 an hour. Bullard lost his race to stay in the Senate earlier this month to Republican Frank Artilles. Activists say they are working with other legislators to see about who may propose it in the 2017 session.

Advocates have scored getting a $15 wage in states like California and New York, while Los Angeles, Seattle and other cities have approved the measure at the local level. In Miami Beach, Mayor Phil Levine announced earlier this year his plan to raise his city’s living wage to $13.31 over a period of four years. That’s a violation of state law, which doesn’t allow municipalities to create their own wage system, but authorities in Tallahassee have yet to act against Levine.

“While our federal and state governments have moved to the right, our cities have been a cauldron in firing up experiments in justice and equality,” said Rick Smith, the chief of staff for the Florida Public Service Workers Union. “The people of St. Pete and the people of Tampa can craft a vision that expresses the desires of the majority of the people in our cities,” he said, speaking specifically to issues like affordable housing, promoting livable wages, and ending police brutality.

The Fight for $15! movement initially began as a movement to raise the minimum wage for fast-food workers. But since its inception in 2012, that coalition has spread to childcare and home health care workers and adjunct professors. This year’s rallies are obviously the first in the Donald Trump era, a moment that many of the speakers noted.

“This is not just about Fight for $15 and a union. We’re out here fighting for our lives! This is serious business,” said childcare worker LiAnne Flakes. “Any efforts to block wage increases, gut workers rights and healthcare, deport immigrants, or support racism or racist policies, will be met with unrelenting opposition. We are fighting for our lives!”

“Seeing how terror and hate everyday terrorizes our community, we will not stand for that,” said Pamela Gomez with the Florida Inmigrant Rights Coalition, referring to what she said was the ” very divisive hateful rhetoric” heard during the recently concluded presidential campaign.

“When we see a presidential campaign that rips the scab off of what I thought was a long healing process, it is a terrifying experience and it hurts the standard living of almost everyone in America. as we use this racism to drive down wages,” echoed St. Pete City Councilman Karl Nurse.

Rice said that every city has a poor section in it that has crime, low employment and troubled schools. She said such areas don’t naturally evolve but in fact are designed, referring to discriminatory lending practices and decisions to build highways in historic black areas, which is what happened in both Tampa and St. Petersburg in the 1960’s.”If it was created by design, we can fix it by design,” Rice said. “That to me is the larger meaning about the Fight for $15! is all about. We need to get the political will to that get at structural poverty and structural racism.”

City Council Chair Amy Foster said that her daughter is attending school currently with the goal of becoming a childcare worker, an issue that she’s passionate about. “I’m worried everyday that she won’t be able to support a family on that wage as she grows and I want her to do what she’s passionate about,” Foster said.

The Florida Retail Federation and other major businesses in Florida (and nationwide) fiercely oppose the raising of the minimum wage, claiming that businesses would be forced to pay the higher wages and then pass on the cost to their customers or reduce their work force.

President-elect Trump has been all over the map regarding the minimum/livable wage. A year ago he said U.S. worker wages were “too high” and made the U.S. uncompetitive, while this year, he has said the minimum wage should rise, with states taking the lead.

Mitch Perry has been a reporter with Extensive Enterprises since November of 2014. Previously, he served as five years as the political editor of the alternative newsweekly Creative Loafing. He also was the assistant news director with WMNF 88.5 FM in Tampa from 2000-2009, and currently hosts MidPoint, a weekly talk show, on WMNF on Thursday afternoons. He began his reporting career at KPFA radio in Berkeley. He's a San Francisco native who has now lived in Tampa for 15 years and can be reached at mitch.perry@floridapolitics.com.

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