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Continuing MLK's Legacy: Florida's working class speaks out against minimum wage

Ashley Montgomery | 4/17/2014, 9 a.m.

Restaurant and labor workers across South Florida are joining Democratic leaders in urging state lawmakers to close the widening gap between the poor and affluent by raising the minimum wage.

Recent demonstrations in Miami-Dade and Broward Counties have called attention to the plight of fast-food restaurant employees and retail workers. Employees at McDonalds, Burger King, Wendy’s and Walmart say they are struggling to survive on $7.93 an hour. They are calling on lawmakers to increase their hourly pay to a rate that would allow them to live like ordinary, middle-class Americans.

At the Civic Center near Jackson Memorial Hospital, workers took their concerns to the streets in early April with placards to protest for higher wages. Shortly after the demonstration began, security officials removed the workers from the area since the group did not have a permit to protest.

Oscar Rivera, 23, works at a Wendy’s near Overtown and participated in the protest. A journalism student at Miami-Dade College, Rivera said he is unable to pay his electric bills while working for $7.95 an hour as a part-time employee. He works a total of 23 hours a week to send money to help his family in Nicaragua.

Rivera was encouraged by the presence of other protestors.

“I feel supported,” he said. “We need to fight for our rights. Although I’m in the minority, I feel good because people are standing up for people like me.”

Sarai Portillo, program director of the Miami Workers Center, an organization that raises human rights issues for low-wage workers, said companies should do more to reward their employees.

“These companies make millions of dollars in profits and don’t share them with their workers,” she said.

Portillo said the minimum wage should be increased from $7.93 an hour to $15.

According to a recent national survey, nearly 90 percent of fast-food workers allege wage theft, exploitation and employee abuse.

Out of 1,088 workers, 89 percent said they have been forced to work off the clock and been denied lunch breaks. Workers also said they have been refused overtime pay.

In the West Lake community in Broward County, hundreds of low-wage workers marked the recent anniversary of Martin Luther King’s assassination with a rally, calling on corporations and lawmakers to honor King’s memory by paying worker’s livable wages.

In addition to ending racial segregation, King dedicated his life to defending the poor against exploitation and injustice. The civil rights leader was fighting for higher wages for sanitation workers in Memphis, TN when he was assassinated at the Loraine Motel on April 4, 1968.

Now President Barack Obama is leading a national effort to increase the minimum wage to $10.10, an amount that recently became law in Maryland and Connecticut.

State Sen. Dwight Bullard and Rep. Cynthia Stafford have introduced bills in the Florida legislature asking lawmakers to also increase the amount to $10.10.

"I strongly believe that if you work for a living, then you should be paid a liveable wage," said Stafford.

Stafford said the number of Floridians living in poverty would be reduced if the state had a higher minimum wage and is pushing for immediate change.

"Raising the state’s minimum wage would ensure economic security for hard working families in Florida," Stafford said in a statement. "A majority of Americans support raising the minimum wage to $10.10 per hour. The Florida Legislature should put the needs of people before politics and raise the state minimum wage now!”

But Republican lawmakers oppose a minimum wage increase, saying that a raise would reduce entry-level jobs and hurt struggling businesses. Conservatives have not taken up the issue and accuse Democrats of using the media to influence public opinion on minimum wage.

Miami Times City Editor Erick Johnson contributed to this report.