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Whitmer and Democrats hit Detroit Labor Day events, hear about worker struggles

Sarah Cwiek
Michigan Radio

It’s Labor Day, and that means political candidates are stumping for votes at events around the state – and many Democrats were in Detroit for the city’s annual Labor Day Parade.

Gubernatorial candidate Gretchen Whitmer and running mate Garlin Gilchrist met with skilled trades, Teamsters, and UAW union members.

They also rallied with Service Employees International Union President Mary Kay Henry and SEIU members, where Whitmer pledged to use the governor’s office to champion the interests of labor.

“They need a governor who’s going to be their champion, who’s going to make sure that there’s a level playing field,” Whitmer said.

“I think that there are a lot of ways a governor can make a difference. Whether it’s from the appointment of cabinet officials, to writing of the state budget, to using the bully pulpit. And I’m willing to use every ounce of power to help people get ahead in Michigan again.”

Some service workers and aspiring union members at the SEIU rally said conditions for the lowest-wage Michigan workers aren’t improving.

Betty Henderson runs a child care center in Detroit. She says that state paymentsfor federally-subsidized child care are so low, most workers make poverty-level wages. The average child care worker in Michigan makes around $11 an hour.

Henderson has to supplement her income as a limo driver. “I don’t think anyone who owns a child care business should have to work two jobs,” Henderson said. “That’s what I do. That’s why I literally work around the clock.”

Henderson works with the group Care Workers in Action helping to try and organize a union. She says that would give them a stronger voice and negotiating power with Lansing.

Sharonda Bush has worked for years with D-15, the Detroit chapter of the Fight for 15 campaign, which advocates a $15-an-hour minimum wage for retail and service sector workers. She currently works two fast food jobs to support herself and her four-year-old.

Bush says that in addition to persistently low wages, workers like herself have to deal with employers who sometimes don’t pay them what they’re owed, telling employees to sort it out later or wait until their next paycheck.

“It’s just very hard. Very hard,” Bush said. “There’s been no progress whatsoever.”

Janitors with Detroit’s SEIU Local 1 did recently score a rare labor victory.They got a new contract that raises employees’ wages to at least $15 an hour in three years. Local 1 represents custodial in many downtown Detroit buildings, Detroit Public Schools Community District schools, and Detroit Metro Airport.

Whitmer supports a $15 minimum wage. However, she'd need state lawmakers' cooperation to get that done.

A state court recently ruled that a ballot initiative that would raise the state minimum wage to $12 should go on the November ballot. However, the GOP-led state legislature, with encouragement from business groups, could adopt the measure as law, then go back and make changes that some fear could effectively dismantle it. The legislature has until Oct. 3 to act on the proposal.

Sarah Cwiek joined Michigan Public in October 2009. As our Detroit reporter, she is helping us expand our coverage of the economy, politics, and culture in and around the city of Detroit.
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