The national fight to raise the minimum wage will descend on Richmond this week as thousands of low-wage workers hold their first national convention in the former capital of the Confederacy.
Organizers say the setting is intended to underscore the link between economic inequality, which has become a theme in this year’s presidential election, and the South’s history of slavery and systemic racism.
The union-backed movement for a $15 minimum wage has spread across the country in the face of opposition from business interests that say mandated higher wages will force employers to scale back jobs.
Twenty-nine states have passed laws increasing wages above the federal minimum of $7.25, and California, New York and the District are at the leading edge by phasing in a hike to $15 an hour, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
In Virginia, the Republican-controlled General Assembly has killed similar bills to the frustration of civil rights activists, who say Americans have a moral responsibility to raise pay.
The Rev. William Barber II, president of the North Carolina NAACP, is scheduled to give the keynote speech at the Fight for $15 convention on Friday and Saturday and is to lead a march along Monument Avenue, where statues honor the memory of Confederate generals.
“In the South you have some of the highest levels of poverty and yet you have people continuing to be elected who are the most averse to the implementation of things like living wages and health care,” he said in an interview with The Washington Post.
“That’s a part of the old Southern strategy that was used to separate black and brown and white from each other when they need to be united,” said Barber, who gave a well-received speech last month at the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia.
Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton has said she supports the gradual implementation of a $15 minimum wage. Her Republican opponent, Donald Trump, has made conflicting statements about wages, but a campaign official recently clarified that he supports an increase to $10 at the federal level, while letting states decide what’s right for them.
Mary Kay Henry, president of the Service Employees International Union, which endorsed Clinton, said the push for $15 began four years ago with fast-food workers and has expanded to home-health-care and child-care workers, retail employees and adjunct professors.
Victories in state legislatures across the country have emboldened workers “to think now is the time, months ahead of the election, when if we come together we believe we can win,” Henry said in an interview. “And we’re going to stay together after the election.”
Costco is the latest major retailer to raise wages for its entry-level workers, to $13 an hour. But opponents say higher minimum wages hurt small businesses and ultimately workers, because companies would have to cut jobs to afford to pay their employees more.
“When government mandates make it more difficult to hire people, businesses increasingly rely on automation, reduce hours, and create fewer jobs, particularly for entry-level positions,” Paul Logan, spokesman for the Virginia Chamber of Commerce, said in a statement. “That hurts our economy and means less opportunities to gain work experience that leads to higher-wage jobs.”
Nicole Riley, Virginia state director of the National Federation of Independent Business, said that although the intention to increase worker pay is laudable, “it’s a little shortsighted — this could come back and hurt the people you want to help.”
An increase is a non-starter in the state legislature, where Republicans control both chambers, and minimum-wage bills have gone nowhere. A bill that would have allowed cities to set their own wage floors also died, mirroring state preemption of increases in Birmingham, Ala.; Kansas City, Mo.; and St. Louis.
State Sen. Barbara A. Favola (D-Arlington), who this year introduced one of the bills to increase the minimum wage, said neglecting to do so forces government to make up the difference through welfare, food stamps and rental assistance.
“The bottom line is the Republicans have drawn a line in the sand on these income-inequality issues in the state,” she said, adding that in Virginia, they will not expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act.
State Sen. Frank W. Wagner (R-Virginia Beach), chairman of the Senate Commerce and Labor Committee, where Favola’s bill died, said statewide hikes cause inflation.
“It’s really the federal government’s responsibility to establish a minimum wage,” he said.
Priscilla Evans, a 24-year-old Richmond resident, said she will attend the Fight for $15 convention to show lawmakers why they must act now.
She said that earning $7.25 an hour at Wendy’s under what she called poor conditions was one factor that forced her to lose her apartment and put her 1-month-old son up for adoption.
“I don’t want the same thing to happen again to someone else,” she said.