Remarks by Jeff Roby
St. Petersburg City Hall
You people of the press have asked, how do we think we can win this? The only logical way to follow that is to talk about gay marriage. Why? Well, I remember back when it was illegal everywhere. Not just illegal, the notion was ridiculous. The leading gay groups hated it, they said it was a distraction. Worse, it was an embarrassment. So what happened?
Those who believed in it, who believed in the simple justice of it, stuck to their guns, and the case for it grew. Sure, there was stuff in the U.S. Constitution, stuff that had been there for a long time, some silly stuff about “equal protection,” but that didn’t particularly matter. Still, the embarrassing, ridiculous activists kept at it, and lo and behold!. Some judges suddenly noticed that it was discriminatory. It wasn’t that their reading skills had suddenly improved. It was that their LISTENING skills had improved. Now these barriers are falling like dominoes, all around the country. Even, yegads! right here in Florida. Laws are kind of funny that way.
Oh yeah, I’m supposed to be talking about the $15 minimum wage. There’s this funny thing in the Florida State Constitution, Article X, Section 24(a). It says, and I quote:
“(a) PUBLIC POLICY. All working Floridians are entitled to be paid a minimum wage that is sufficient to provide a decent and healthy life for them and their families,” goes on to say that workers should not be forced to “rely on taxpayer-funded public services in order to avoid economic hardship.”
Lawyers can say that means all sorts of things, but us simple folk who just speak English, we know that $7.93 an hour isn’t providing the Maria Fernandeses of this state any “decent and healthy life.” So when I mention this to some very erudite folks, some very committed social activists, some very smart politicians like our State Representative Darryl Rouson, well, it doesn’t mean nothing to them. We’re talking reality, after all.
You see, there is money involved.
The Tourist industry in these parts pays its politicians a lot of money to keep it in yachts and private golf courses. Big agriculture, whose workers sweat day to day to pick the oranges and lemons that are the trademark of our fair state, expects a fair return on their investments up in Tallahassee. The healthcare industry needs its army of nurses assistants who care for our elderly and empty their bedpans. Then there’s the so-called “Corrections” industry which counts on keeping our private prisons packed with those who couldn’t or wouldn’t live on, or couldn’t get at all, those starvation wages offered by the Sunshine State.
Very Big Money is involved here. They call it free enterprise. What free enterprise means is that the price of a politician in Tallahassee is set by the prevailing rate according to the free market, and they’re cheaper by the dozen. Big Money didn’t like this “decent and healthy life” stuff. Some poor fools might read that Constitution and take it seriously. So back in 2003 they passed Statute 218.077 which says, “a political subdivision may not establish, mandate, or otherwise require an employer to pay a minimum wage, other than a state or federal minimum wage.”
That took care of that. Then Orange County comes along with a ballot initiative to mandate paid sick leave, so they fixed that too. They tacked on “or to provide employment benefits not otherwise required by state or federal law.”
So much for Article X, Section 24(a). When Big Money talks, legal don’t matter. Constitutional don’t matter. And human decency? Don’t make me laugh. Legal is what they say is legal
But then I remember, racial segregation was once legal. Selling human beings like cattle was legal. Black folks couldn’t vote, that was legal. Women couldn’t vote, legal again. And to restate the more recent, gay marriage wasn’t legal. Anywhere.
What it comes down to is that what matters is justice. But not just justice on paper. Justice on the lips of the thousands and millions crying out for justice.
So let me put all this in perspective. We’re crying out for justice. But we’re in the beginning stages of the fight, not the glorious conclusion. What SEIU and Florida Public Services Union and Fight for 15 and the $15 victory in Seattle have done is put it on the map. Like Bull Connor’s police dogs and Segregation Now and Forever George Wallace put segregation on the map back in the 60’s.
As they said, they have pricked the state’s and the nation’s conscience. So are we. Now 15 is out there. You say “15” and people at least know what you’re talking about. Now we can start to ask the eternal question, “which side are you on?” That’s what we’re asking the St. Petersburg City Council. Tallahassee is telling them, “you can’t raise your local minimum wage.” We’re telling them, “the hell you can’t!” Four City Council seats are up for grabs in 2015, and 2015 is just a couple days more than three months away. Districts 1, 3, 5 and 7. That’s:
Hey guys, which side are you on?
The State House and half the State Senate are up in 2016, and that’s sooner than a lot of people think. You reckon that the minimum wage isn’t going be on the table in 2016. We say, think again. Over half the seats for state legislature in Florida are uncontested by one major party or the other. Anyone think we haven’t noticed that?
We’re hot on the scent now. Not just because we’re determined individuals, but because our people are hurting, the Maria Fernandeses, all the families where the mother has to choose between watching over her kids, or feeding them, where staying in school is no longer an option, where picking up a gun and risking prison is an all too real choice. We’re not going away.
And some day, some little town in maybe Scaly Gator County is going to say, our people need help, they’re demanding a “decent and healthy” minimum wage. And this little city or town or county is going to say, “to hell with Tallahassee! They say they’ll sue us? Bring it on!” And some judge that you’ve never heard of is going to stumble out of bed, and before he’s had his morning coffee, he’s going to pick up the Florida State Constitution instead of his usual Miami Herald, and he’s going to read Article X, Section 24 for what might feel like the first time, and he’ll say, “Decent and healthy! Hot damn! That 218.077 is downright unconstitutional,” and he’ll say that because a lot of people are banging on his door, and even if his reading skills haven’t improved, he can’t help but listen. And the dam will burst.
NOW, THEREFORE …
So today, we’re not calling on the St. Petersburg City Council, as it said in the Declaration of Independence, to risk their lives, or even their fortunes. We’re not asking them, not yet, anyway, to spend any money, meaning our own tax money. But we are wondering about their sacred honor. So here is the Maria Fernandes Resolution put once again to the City Council of St. Petersburg:
“NOW THEREFORE, BE IT RESOLVED by the City Council of the City of St. Petersburg, that the Council calls for the Legislature of the State of Florida to repeal Statute 218.077(2), and immediately upon such repeal, the Council will move to set a minimum wage of $15 an hour for all workers without exception and without delay in implementation.”
And we ask them, “which side are you on?”
(See further remarks here)