Students lead march to raise minimum wage at the University

Delaney Ryan/Daily
LSA seniors Kamille Tynes and Liana Kallman lead a march in solidarity with low-wage workers Wednesday to raise the minimum wage to $15. Buy this photo

By Emma Kinery, Daily Staff Reporter
Published April 15, 2015

Imagine a $15 minimum wage.

Protesters in support of raising the minimum wage to $15 for University staff marched to the Fleming Administration Building on Wednesday in hopes of receiving a response from the University.

LSA seniors Liana Kallman and Kamille Tynes led the protest, which called on the University and all of their subcontractors pay employees a minimum wage of $15 and recognize and bargain with the appropriate union or organization of employees.

Currently, the University sets minimum wage for temporary employees at the same rate as the state of Michigan. Minimum wage in the state of Michigan is $8.15 per hour. Gov. Rick Snyder (R) signed a bill into law last year that will increase the state’s minimum wage to $9.25 by 2018. Full-time University employees currently earn a University minimum wage of $22,320 per year, or $10.73 per hour.

The protesters at the University were not alone. The Guardian reported that protesters in cities across the country also rallied for a $15 minimum wage on Wednesday. These efforts follow decisions in Seattle and San Francisco to raise the minimum wage to $15 per hour, and in Massachusetts to $11 per hour beginning in 2017. These numbers have surpassed the $10.10 federal minimum wage President Barack Obama called for during his 2014 State of the Union address and in a speech at the University in April 2014.

The protesters gathered on the steps of South Quad Residence Hall holding signs reading, “$15 for all workers” and “15 and a Union.” They began by chanting: “What do we want? 15. When do we want it? Now.” and “Low pay is not OK.” Several individuals came forward to share their stories pertaining to wages. One such individual was University alum Blair Ellis, who spoke dressed in his Starbucks uniform.

“Asking for $15 an hour is asking to be part of a conversation,” Ellis said. “A lot of people say why they don’t want $15 an hour; they say it’s going to hurt small businesses or be too much of a change at once, and that’s a conversation that could be had, but that’s a conversation that’s being had amongst people who are making $15 an hour. If we want to make decisions that will have the best outcome, we need to have people who are involved to be a part of it, and if those people are working, then they can’t be a part of it.”

While he spoke, a small group of counter-protesters against raising the minimum wage shouted at him and booed.

LSA senior Ryan Miller, a leader of the countermovement, said he led the protest because he believes minimum wages are destructive, in part because they cause people to lose their jobs when employers can’t afford to pay all of their employees after a pay raise.

Miller said raising the University minimum wage to $15 would not be beneficial for the community.

“Prices will go up, prices will be worse off in the long run,” he said.

The protesters marched from South Quad to the steps of the Michigan Union. Upon reaching the Union, individuals were given another opportunity to discuss why the cause was important to them. Tynes recounted times she simultaneously worked and took classes at the University, when she worried about being evicted from her apartment and her electricity being turned off.

“I’m here today because I understand the struggle; I understand not living a lavish life, but still just trying to have the bare minimum,” Tynes said. “As a worker, and as a student worker, we have to do something to make sure that people aren’t struggling. Some people are just trying to eat food — we are not a third world country — and at the University of Michigan, we are the leaders and the best, so we need to take up and step up and fight for 15.”

Kallman advised the protesters to leave one of their large banners lying on the steps of the Union so that passerby would see them. From there, the protesters continued on to the Fleming Administration Building.

Police guarded the doors of Fleming where the protesters again read their demands.

Sociology Lecturer Ian Robinson attended the rally and spoke in favor of raising the wage. In addition to teaching, he is the president of the Huron Valley Central Labor Council, which represents all of the unions in the Washtenaw and Livingston counties.

“I would say almost everybody on the council is strongly supportive of this because we realize that we can’t really have a labor movement that’s just comprised of unions,” Robinson said. “If we had just kept up our minimum wage with inflation, let alone productivity, in the real dollar terms back in the late ’60s, we’d be about $18 an hour for minimum wage.”

Robinson cited other countries, such as Australia and Denmark, which have higher minimum wages than that of the United States, but where he said goods cost just a few cents more.

During this portion, some of the leading members of the movement marched inside to speak with University President Mark Schlissel, but when they reached his office, they were met by police officers. The protesters said they handed the officers the list of demands, read them aloud and left. They said they have already e-mailed the regents and are awaiting a response from them. If the regents do not answer, protesters said they are willing to take less “polite” action.

“We explained to them that we’re doing it politely this time, we’re not trying to walk in there and cause a ruckus, but that’s not going to be true next time,” Ellis said.

University spokesman Rick Fitzgerald said the University has received the list of demands but has yet to address them.

“It’s not unusual for our students to make their point of view known on different topics and we certainly respect their rights to bring this issue to the attention of the University community,” Fitzgerald said. “At this point, they did drop off a letter to the president’s office, and we’ll have to take a careful look at that.”

Tynes was happy with the crowd that gathered and how the protest went as a whole.

“I loved seeing everyone come out, we had a pretty good diverse group and everyone’s passionate about it,” Tyers said. “I’m excited, I’m grateful and I’m hopeful that the University will listen to us without us having to do more demonstrations, but we’re willing and ready to do more.”

At 4:00 p.m. Wednesday, individuals who wanted to continue the protest said they hoped to go to Detroit, where over 5,000 workers gathered to protest similar demands. LSA sophomore Rebecca Wren said she was planning to go to Detroit after the protest.

“I think Ann Arbor is an important city, but Detroit, wages mean a lot more for them,” Wren said. “While it’s important for student workers to make $15 an hour, Detroit’s got a bigger movement and we want to show solidarity as U of M students to support minimum wage, to support Detroit and to just support the Detroit workers.”