Photo by Adeyemi Bandele

On Monday Jan. 15, 2018, a holiday celebrating the life of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.,  a coalition of union and non-union workers, activists, elected officials, and small business owners gathered in Annapolis to kick off the “Fight For $15” statewide campaign, calling on elected officials in Annapolis to raise the minimum wage during the Maryland Legislative Session, which began on Jan. 10 and will end in April.

The event was led by Montgomery County senator and gubernatorial candidate Rich Madaleno, Baltimore County State Delegate Shelly Hettlemen, and the Maryland Fight for $15 Coalition. Democratic elected officials took to the microphone in the packed-beyond-capacity room in the House of Delegates to promise the crowd that they’d work tirelessly to pass a minimum wage bill. Madaleno and Hettlemen are the primary sponsors of the Senate and House Bills, which call for a gradual increase to $15 an hour by 2023.

Critics of raising the minimum wage say that doing so would hurt small businesses. Emily Ennis of MOM’s Organic Market, a growing food market chain, and several other business owners were on hand to show their support for an increase. They said the increase would help grow business in Maryland. “We know that workers are also customers. So the more we pay them, the more they can spend and grow the economy,” Ennis said from the podium.

Recent studies by the National Employment Law Project say that raising Maryland’s minimum wage to $15 an hour would provide 573,000 Maryland workers with a raise.

Co-owning two small businesses, I understand that investing in workers yields the highest return on investment. Trust the workers that they will buy in when you do. Look your team in the eye and join workers with skin in the game;”  said Ava Pipitone, a worker-owner of Red Emma’s Cafe and Bookstore and executive director of The Baltimore Transgender Alliance. Pipitone is also the co founder of HostHome, which provides donor powered housing to LGBT folks.

Capitol Police shut the rally down an hour before it was scheduled to end due to the overwhelming turnout.

“They weren’t ready for this kind of turnout,” one rally attendee said to me as we stood in the cold, slowly being admitted into the House Office Building after security checks.

After an attempt to open up an overflow room lead to that room also being beyond capacity, the fire marshal made the call to shut the event down.

The Maryland Fight For $15 coalition is comprised of Labor Unions, including 1199 SEIU, SEIU 32BJ, AFSCME;  advocacy groups such as Jews United For Justice and Progressive Maryland; and many others, totaling over 60 groups and organizations, some representing the business community. Workers and activists traveled from all over the state to voice their support for raising the minimum wage.

Ricarra Jones, political organizer for 1199 SEIU, which represents healthcare workers, said that the abundant turnout was due to the overwhelming statewide support for the issue. Over 200 people were present.

“We put the word out, but once people knew the event was happening they jumped on buses and even organized carpools from Eastern shore and Western MD,” Jones said via text (Full disclosure: I was scheduled to perform spoken word at the event, but due to the early closing, I did not get the opportunity to do so. I also used to work as an organizer for 1199 SEIU).

Last year’s efforts to raise the minimum wage fell short in Annapolis. The movement took another blow when Baltimore Mayor Catherine Pugh, who ran her campaign partly on a promise to raise the minimum wage in Baltimore, went back on her promise and vetoed the bill that the city council put before her.

Pugh gained financial support from several unions by boasting her support for a wage increase, but later changed her mind after consulting with business owners. Mayor Pugh said she would support the statewide effort but has yet to make a comment about Sen. Madaleno and Del. Hettlemen’s new bills.

The Baltimore Brew reported that Pugh gave a man a “thumbs up” when he asked her about raising the minimum wage from the crowd earlier Monday during the MLK Day parade in Baltimore.

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