“Don’t boo. Organize.”
How profound. And only three words. For all of the hours President Barack Obama and his writers likely spend writing, editing and perfecting his speeches, it was an off-the-cuff remark that shed the most light on where the priorities of the American people are and where they should be. And it only strengthened his argument.
Speaking to a crowd yesterday mixed with students, donors and alumni who were all thrilled to be at the musty, dimly lit Intramural Sports Building, Obama emphasized the importance of raising the national minimum wage to $10.10 from the current $7.25 — $7.40 in Michigan. I’ve never seen a more engaging speaker. And he obviously knows his audience.
He began with a resounding “Go Blue!”
He ate lunch at Zingerman’s and had something to say about it: “One of the reasons I went was because the sandwiches are outstanding. The second reason, though, is Zingerman’s is a business that treats its workers well, and rewards honest work with honest wages … and that’s what I’m here to talk about today.” And if you haven’t heard by now, he ordered a Reuben.
He gave a shoutout to Nik Stauskas, Glenn Robinson III, Jordan Morgan and Devin Gardner — specifically saying that Stauskas shouldn’t worry because he has a contract coming up and that Morgan was the definition of a true student-athlete.
He definitely covered the bases, including his obligatory shot at Republican incompetence. Obama claimed that the Republican’s tactics — including an original idea to repeal the Affordable Care Act — are counterproductive to America’s success. The crowd agreed and expressed its resentment. And Obama responded.
Obama can only do so much with the minimum-wage initiative. Smooth talking while wearing a rolled up button-down and tie can only go so far. He needs Congress to pass a bill, which at this point seems more unlikely than likely with midterm elections coming up in November. So he went back to his roots as a community organizer.
And that’s where we come in. There are hundreds of student groups on campus, so really organizing isn’t the problem. Rather, it’s the desire to organize. We cannot be content with booing. Without action, it’s an obnoxious sound and a waste of breath. The status of the minimum wage, specifically, is an issue that directly affects our futures. We have to care. Because it matters that fellow citizens of ours are working multiple jobs and are still not able to make ends meet.
“Don’t boo. Organize. That’s what you need to do, because they may not hear the boos, but they can read a petition and they can see votes.”
It seems like a common sense issue. Evidently, it’s not. And actually, we don’t even have to wait for Congress — or the government, in general — to make something happen.
Effective organization is possible. I saw it firsthand last weekend.
As a participant of Detroit Partnership Day, my site was at Denby High School. Directly across the street from the school were several blocks filled with abandoned and blighted houses. While helping clean up these houses was rewarding, it was even more amazing to hear about how the local community came together and began making the surrounding area a safer place, so people, especially children, don’t have to live in fear and can enjoy life. They want to build a park. They want to resuscitate the damaged houses and turn them into small businesses that students will work and learn in. Truly inspiring.
But, of course, this all takes effort. Thinking is a lot easier than doing.
That being said, I’m not calling for a “Students for Higher Minimum Wage” group to start tomorrow. Quite frankly, I’ve never been a part of a movement advocating for political, economic or social change myself. And I admit that what Obama said today probably won’t have me jumping out of bed tomorrow to join one. I think that’s also OK.
Nonetheless, I want to start by asking the right questions.
Why don’t companies, big or small, pay their employees more? What would have to change to make that happen? Is it purely profit-motivated? Why do some companies pay their employees above minimum wage?
And with those answers in hand, action can follow — or not. Weighing priorities is important as well.
However, the future of the minimum wage debate among other things is unclear right now. And that’s why it’s crucial to understand the gravitas of Obama’s remark.
If you truly want something, you cannot sit idly. And your friends, family and community can’t either.
Derek Wolfe can be reached at email@example.com.