Youth Dare to Make Change Happen Now
On March 13 Boston Mobilization, YMORE, Unitarian Universalist Religious Professionals of Color and the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) participated in an action of public witness for raisong the minimum wage in Massachusetts. The following is an eye-witness account of the event.–Ed.
Raising the Minimum Wage in Massachusetts
By Collin Kluchman
As an alumni of the youth group at First Parish Lexington in Lexington Massachusetts and an organizer with Sub/Urban Justice and the YMORE (Youth of Massachusetts Organizing for a Reformed Economy) coalition, I was incredibly excited to combine forces with Finding Our Way Home, the UUA’s annual gathering for Unitarian Universalist Professionals of Color. For the past months the youth at YMORE and other organizers in Boston have been advocating for a raised minimum wage in the state of Massachusetts. We had collected signatures, held a Martin Luther King Day action with the UU Urban Ministry and held meetings with our elected officials. The action on March 13th was the climax of our efforts.
On the day of our action, we received a phone call telling us the Speaker of the House, Robert DeLeo, had passed a bill that would raise the minimum wage to $10.50 an hour, but would only go part way. Speaker DeLeo’s bill did not index the minimum wage to inflation or raise the minimum wage meaningfully for tipped workers. In addition, the bill was connected to cuts to unemployment benefits as a concession to the large businesses who were against raising the minimum wage. At that point we all had to consider whether our points were still relevant. We scrambled to shift our focus from minimum wage as a whole to focus on unemployment benefits. Despite last minute changes to our demands, there was palpable energy in the room as YMORE youth leaders Kate, Ellie, Nakiyah, and Deborah told poignant stories about how minimum wage impacts their lives.
Deborah, a 17-year old youth leader shared why she cares about raising the minimum wage:
My mother and I went to a cheap grocery store where we could get a lot of food. By the time we got to the register I watched my check rapidly decline. My $320 check was gone.
That was the week I worked 45 hours. My plan was to buy a dress that I had my eye on, but obviously I couldn’t get it. After this experience I realized that $300 a week is not enough to live on. I began to think of my coworkers at Dunkin Donuts. These are adults who are trying to support themselves and their children! How do they do it. How do they pay for rent? For food? For basic living expenses. The fact of the matter is they don’t make it. They are struggling.
After hearing powerful stories and a few words from honorary teen for the day and UUA president, Rev. Peter Morales, we were full of energy and ready to act. Some teens and UU religious professionals of color went off to meet with legislators. Others joined in a creative action that I had helped design. Our energy was manifest when there was no shortage of volunteers to hold signs when my fellow youth organizer Laura and I requested them. As I led my group of UU religious professionals and teens from all over the Boston area and suburbs, we paused to let a column of activists march into the State House. I felt invigorated when I realized that these cold but determined people were part of our cohort. We were powerful. We handed out the remainder of our signs and began to file up the steps towards the only unlocked door. As the front of the line neared the entrance the door swung open and a security guard stepped out and informed us that signs and posters are not allowed inside the State House. “Is that legal?” someone asked. “What about freedom of speech?” another queried.
Admittedly we had been aware that our posters might not be allowed in the State House. My colleague Sophie, another youth leader and member of the UU youth group at the Follen Church Society, suggested we start the chant “Hell no, we wont go!” She explained that we were not being granted access to the State House, and asked the crowd, “So what are we going to do?” After some prompting from me, everyone took up the chant.
“Now this is an action” I thought, feeling the angst build in my teenaged stomach. Apparently, almost two hundred people yelling and screaming can be disruptive, and curious faces pressed themselves up against the windows of the State House. After a minute or so a veteran looking security guard came out to parley. He introduced himself as Bill. Clearly instructed to placate us, he told us that we were welcome inside the State House, as it was the people’s house, but our signs had to stay outside. We asked if we could bring just our larger sign that was meant to be given to Speaker DeLeo. It was cut in the shape of a price tag, with the words “What is the cost of hurting MA workers?” on it and filled with over a hundred stories about how a low minimum wage had affected a variety of people.
He amiably said that that would be all right, and myself and a small group entered the State House while the others continued chanting outside. We had to explain to another security guard that our poster was not in fact filled with money, but other than that we reached the Speaker’s office without incident. After a short wait, during which we talked to Bill about minimum wage, the Speaker’s aide came out and thanked us for our message, and informed us that all of our stories would be read. We posed for a picture and said our goodbyes and thank-yous.
I felt triumphant as I walked out of the State House: security had said no posters in the State House, and we had brought a poster half the size of my body inside. The politicians didn’t want us acting on legislatures in the place where they make laws, and we had done so anyways. The combined energy of teens and adults had been powerful enough to force the powers that be to take notice. The doubts I had before the action– Is our voice relevant? Can we make real change? – had been put aside. We were the first group to question the bill Speaker DeLeo had passed, and other teens had met with their respective legislators early in the day to gain their support with great success. Minimum wage was going to be raised in Massachusetts and we had made an important step to making sure that it was raised for real: indexed to inflation, an increased tipped minimum wage, and no cuts to unemployment benefits.
Read an account of the collaboration between participants in teh Finding Our Way Home Retreat, Boston Mobilization and YMORE on Standing on the Side of Love.
Collin Kluchman is 17 and a senior at Lexington High School. He is an alumni of the youth group at First Parish in Lexington, MA and has been a youth leader with Boston Mobilization’s Sub/Urban Justice program since 2012.