An early-winter rain fell on the North Side street corner — strategically located between a McDonald's and a Wendy's — as Elizabeth Massey-Demus stood with nearly 100 other protesters on Dec. 11. "I'm not out here doing this for my own good," she told me. "We really need a $15 minimum wage."
Not that she'd pass up the extra money. Massey-Demus works as a fast-food cashier for the minimum wage of $7.25 an hour. That's not enough to raise her two children without government help, which is why she'd joined the nationwide day of protest urging the wage be more than doubled.
It would be unfair to single out Massey-Demus' employer — let's just say its mascot has bright-red hair — because very few fast-food places pay a decent wage. Hell, most barely pay better than a university hiring people with advanced degrees.
On the same day that Massey-Demus was out in the rain, in fact, adjunct professors staged a protest of their own at Duquesne University. Their demands were different — the adjuncts want Duquesne to allow them to form a union under the auspices of the Steelworkers — but their plight was much the same. The union estimates that with a full teaching load, an adjunct can hope to earn maybe $15,000 a year. A fast-food cashier, working 40 hours a week at $7.25 an hour, can expect to earn $15,080.
Such problems may seem remote in Pittsburgh. A story about our economic resurgence comes out every other week, seemingly. This past July, a study found Pittsburgh's rate of upward mobility — the chance that someone born in the bottom 20 percent of earners can rise to the top 20 percent — to be among the top 10 for cities nationwide.
But a more recent report issued by the Pew Charitable Trusts this month — which got much less attention locally — found that Pittsburgh's economic mobility was just average among metro areas. And even Richard Florida, who once hailed a rising "Creative Class" of boho artists and computer gurus over at Carnegie Mellon University, has been raising the alarm. Though often derided as a propagandist for effete, elite knowledge workers, Florida has been warning about the consequences of having the rich get richer while everyone else's earnings lag. Pittsburgh's level of income inequality, he says, ranks 17th out of 51 U.S. metro areas with more than 1 million people. That's "better than many [areas], but not great," Florida says.
Inequality, Florida and his researchers have found, is often tied to areas with low labor representation — which means we may all have a stake in campaigns to organize adjuncts, or service workers at UPMC.
If the voices of low-wage workers aren't addressed, it's not hard to imagine the dream going sour for everyone else. For starters, how long will college students be willing to take on more than $20,000 in student loans, when they can see their own instructors on campus, pleading for enough money to live on?
Folks with college degrees aren't just making fast-food wages: Many are working in fast-food jobs, or something similar. Earlier this year, the Center for College Affordability and Productivity found that more than one-third of college graduates are working jobs that only require a high-school diploma.
In a city as devoted to eds and meds as Pittsburgh has become, that's a potentially serious problem. Law schools — long a cash cow for universities — are already scaling back. Pitt and Duquesne both shrunk their incoming class sizes this year, a response to a terrible job market for lawyers.
The economic stress has, however, created an opportunity for at least one sector of the economy: labor activists. Employers may be accomplishing what years of protests have so far failed to do: provide workers from wildly divergent backgrounds a sense of solidarity.
"I am old," says Lisa Frank, a longtime local activist now working with One Pittsburgh, which organized the Dec. 11 fast-food protest. "But this is the least cynical I have felt for a long time."
At that protest, I asked Massey-Demus what she wanted the rest of us to do: boycott fast-food places?
"If you feel the way I do," she answered, "maybe you should stand up, too."
Maybe someday, you won't have a choice.