Students back Fight for $15

Workers march for the "Fight For 15" rally, organized by the Service Employees International Union along with nonprofit groups, which seeks wages of at least $15 per hour for low-skilled workers, during a protest outside Union Station Wednesday, April 24, 2013, in Chicago, Illinois. (John J. Kim / Chicago Tribune / MCT)

By Devan Spear

On Wednesday, I will join the thousands of Philadelphians taking to the street to protest against low wages at McDonald's.

Although I grew up in Orlando, I came to Philadelphia because I wanted to study at a university with a strong reputation for civic engagement and social justice, and the University of Pennsylvania seemed like a perfect fit. To demonstrate that commitment, students from 200 campuses, including my own, will join protests across the nation, because the Fight for $15 is our fight too.

For more than two years, fast-food workers have been striking to sound the alarm about how wealthy companies are profiting by paying their employees wages that are too low to survive on. Although it may seem that the issue of fair wages for fast-food workers is something that wouldn't concern college students, many of us understand that by fighting for fast-food workers this week, we are fighting for an economy that works for everyone.

As Americans, we grow up believing that if we work hard, we will be rewarded with jobs that will support our families and ourselves. Treating workers fairly is something that most of us can agree on, but corporations like McDonald's pay their employees so little that more than half of them need food stamps and other public assistance just to scrape by.

Earlier this year, the Economist noted, "McDonald's doesn't seem to be cool any more, especially among youngsters." McDonald's clearly knows that students have begun to understand the company's role in making it more difficult for us all to survive in the American economy, and their marketing shows it. But it's going to take more than burgers served on wooden platters and redesigned stores to bring us in as customers. McDonald's efforts haven't been working. If anything, our outrage is growing.

For a lot of students today, the path to a job with a living wage is not so clear. Like many other students at Penn, I want to be able to stay in Philadelphia and help support the city I consider to be my home. However, more and more frequently, students are graduating without the ability to get a job that pays enough to make that possible.

The statistics are troubling: Since 2000, real wages for recent college graduates have gone down 7.7 percent, the Economic Policy Institute reported last year. College graduates are increasingly taking poorly paid or part-time jobs. And, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, more than 260,000 people with college degrees are working in jobs that pay the minimum wage.

Going to college is supposed to be the minimum down payment for entry into the middle class, but the cost of college is increasingly priced out of reach for average families. The class of 2014 was the most indebted class in history, the Wall Street Journal reported. My Class of 2017 will likely break that record. Nationally, student loan debt has topped $1 trillion. Although I've been fortunate in many ways, putting me through college has been a huge financial strain on me and my parents.

Economists predict that one in five households are now saddled with student loans that they will carry with them for years after graduation. President Obama has called attention to the ways in which debt is hurting students, their families, and even our economic security as a nation. It will be impossible to pay off loans if wages are falling, even for people who have a degree.

At Penn, I've been lucky to be in classes with passionate and engaging faculty. However, for many of these faculty members, pay is shockingly low. Although adjunct professors are integral to the success of the educational missions of many universities, a study by the University of California, Berkeley, found that one in four families of adjuncts rely on at least one public support program, like food stamps or Medicaid.

There's no reason some of our country's largest employers - whether corporations or universities - can't pay their workers enough to cover the bills, put food on the table, and support their families. No amount of advertising dollars and promotions geared to millennials will change that.

These are just some of the reasons students are standing with those who work in home- and child-care establishments, retail and fast-food stores, and airports and universities in the largest-ever mobilization of workers fighting for higher pay and basic union rights. We know that whatever superficial distinctions may seem to separate people, we are all tied together in our efforts to create a world that can support all of us. It's in everyone's interest to ensure that working people have power so that our futures are not all at the mercy of corporations.

I want to graduate into an economy that works for everyone, not just the wealthy. The Fight for $15 is a movement that has the potential to change people's lives for the better and set our country back on the right track.


Devan Spear is a sophomore studying political science at the University of Pennsylvania.