Author: Gabriel Dunatov
Occidental students joined a nationwide rally in downtown Los Angeles Thursday to support the Fight for $15 campaign. Students were led by Coalition at Oxy for Diversity and Equity (CODE) core member Abhilasha Bhola (senior) and La Raza Coalition President Karen Romero Estrada (senior).
According to a post April 10 on the CODE: Oxy Facebook page regarding the Oxy Students in Solidarity with Fight for $15 Facebook event, although Governor Jerry Brown signed a law April 4 increasing California’s minimum wage to $15 an hour, the rally was still important as a display of solidarity with workers in 300 U.S. cities and 40 countries. These workers, living in states or countries with lower minimum wages, participated in rallies the same day to demand this $15 an hour wage as well as increased access to labor unions.
Students departed from Occidental on buses at around 9:15 a.m., according to protest attendee Lindsey Ingram (first year). They arrived in downtown LA an hour later and soon met up with students from Whittier College to participate in the rally together. She estimated that between the two colleges there were 40–60 students in attendance.
While at the rally, Ingram said the group of students moved among the crowd of Angelenos chanting “trans lives matter,” “Black lives matter” and “raise the wage,” among other phrases. Ingram described the event as a gathering where people could learn more about labor unions, minimum wage and the poor treatment of workers by large corporations.
Scattered throughout the crowd were signs, banners and balloons echoing the phrase, “fight for $15.”
Recalling her group’s interactions with union workers at the event, Ingram explained that it was important to hear their stories because those are the ones that most people do not hear about in their everyday lives.
“When you hear [union workers’] stories about people trying to do good — for not just only themselves, but for a larger group of people — and then how they get treated by the large corporations, it really puts things into perspective and shows you that these corporations have way too much power in what they are doing,” Ingram said. “Yes, the goal at the end of the day is to earn money, but it shouldn’t be at the cost of people’s well-being.”
She noted that these kinds of organized events are important to make issues like the fight for $15 more visible on a larger stage.
“I think it’s all about mobilization and getting people out there to get the message across because obviously I don’t know the CEOs and board of McDonalds, so I as an individual can’t do anything by myself,” Ingram said. “But when you have people coming together, putting pressure on these companies, boycotting these companies, it does put pressure on them to change the way that they are treating their employees. So I think that the rally in general was about gaining numbers and informing people about what’s going on so that they can understand their role in making sure that these things change.”
The CODE: Oxy Facebook page and the La Raza Coalition Facebook page shared a statement April 12 and 13, respectively, to explain the importance, context and goals of the Fight for $15 campaign. In particular, the statement highlighted the role that large corporations like McDonalds had played in leading a “race to the bottom” in labor rights.
“The business model pioneered and perfected by McDonald’s — one of low wages, tax avoidance and no accountability — is now what we find in every industry — like home care, child care, airports, universities and more,” the statement read.
Through the statement, CODE encouraged students to hold these corporations accountable by joining the rally April 14, the day before what is traditionally tax day in the United States. Romero Estrada said that CODE’s goal was to bring 30–50 students to the rally; she estimated that 35 attended.
According to Bhola, it is important for students to participate in activism off campus.
“We as students are privileged in our position and can provide protection for people who risk a lot by marching and letting their voices be heard,” Bhola said via email. “This is also a great learning and networking experience because students can learn about professional organizing and take those skills back to campus to try and make positive change and connect with organizations for jobs and internships in the future.”
Though Bhola has interned for a labor campaign for two years, she explained that her role in the rally is her first involvement with the Fight for $15 campaign. Romero Estrada approached her to suggest using CODE to involve students with the campaign, as well as to show them that the fight for diversity and equity extends beyond campus.
Romero Estrada first became involved in organizing for a higher minimum wage through an internship facilitated by the UEP department during the fall of her junior year. Part of Romero Estrada’s inspiration to begin organizing for the Fight for $15 movement emerged from her work as the president of La Raza Coalition.
During Semana de la Raza, her organization worked with Las Hermanas Aliadas and Los Compadres to welcome Bea Esperanza Fonseca to campus as their keynote speaker March 17. A mixed-race, working-class, transgender chicana movement builder and organizer for the Fight for $15 campaign, Esperanza Fonseca drew attention to the intersectional nature of the labor movement, particularly as it affected transgender women of color.
As a UEP senior herself, Romero Estrada emphasized the significance of practicing what she has learned at Occidental about social and economic justice outside of the classroom.
“Just because we have the privilege to earn a BA does not mean we aren’t exempted from a minimum wage job, which there is nothing wrong with,” Romero Estrada said via email. “Everyone deserves a livable wage and a union to protect their working rights.”
Associated Students of Occidental College (ASOC) President Theophilus Savini sent an email April 12 to students via the ASOC announcements Listserv — normally used for ASOC communication to the student body — quoting the event Facebook post urging students to join the campaign.
“This is bigger than going to class, this is bigger than going to work,” Savini said via email. “This is a call to use our knowledge, and our bodies to continue to fight for a more just and equitable society.”
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