Rev. Patrick Demmer
Activist for Economic Justice
Frequent Speaker and Two Arrests
by Annette Walker
Rev. Patrick Demmer's staunch advocacy for minimum wage increases and general economic justice is rooted in his life experiences. His first job was at McDonald's. That was the summer of 1967, he was 14 years old and his salary $2.50 an hour.
"I am outraged that 50 years later the salary for that same job for full-time employees is $7.50 ," he said. "That's a $5.00 increase or 3 percent over 50 years," he continued.
"What's worse is that in 1965 my parents purchased a modest home in Park Hill for about $15,000. Today that house is valued at $275,000, a 21 percent increase. "McDonald's workers cannot purchase a home in Park Hill," said Demmer, Senior Pastor at Graham Memorial Church of God in Christ.
"McDonald's is a billion dollar and international enterprise. When my wife and I arrived in Athens, Greece, the first thing we saw near the airport was a McDonald's," he continued.
Based on recent reports in the Denver Post, the cost of homes in many areas of metropolitan Denver are soaring and rent for a one-bedroom apartment is about $1200, an out-of-range amount for fast-food, retail and service industry workers.
"When I worked at McDonald's, most employees were teenagers and young adults and we lived with our families," he said. "That has changed."
A recent study by the Berkeley Center for Labor Research and Education at the University of California reveals that most fast-food employees are heads-of-households and often have children. Furthermore, since they cannot meet their basic needs with their low wages, they are forced to rely on various forms of public assistance, such as food stamps, Medicaid and child care subsidies.
These costs are borne by taxpayers and are often referred to as “the hidden costs of low wages”. The Berkeley study shows that nationally 52% of fast-food workers, 48% or home healthcare workers and 46% of childcare workers received public assistance. Surprisingly, the study found that 25% of part-time (adjunct) college teachers, some with Ph.d degrees, receive some form of public assistance.
The Economic Policy Institute (EPI) reports that Colorado ranks number 11 regarding economic inequality. This is in contrast to recent media headlines that the state’s overall income grew more than 6 percent between 2008 and 2012. However, the EPI report shows that most of that increase went to the wealthiest 1 percent as opposed to the bottom 99 percent.
Demmer is hardly alone with his concern about stagnant wages and the skyrocketing cost of living. There is a “buzz” in the United States about the excesses of income inequality and it has blossomed into a minimum wage movement. Some economists like Robert Reich, Treasury Secretary during the Clinton administration, have pointed out that low wages are a barrier to growth of the national economy. The daily national newspaper USA Today has called this movement, 'the issue that just won't go away'.
The fast-food workers campaign began in New York City in November 2012 with 200 workers walking off their jobs demanding a $15 hourly wage and the right to form a union without retaliation. In May 2014 there were job actions in 150 cities, in December 2014, 190 cities and on April 15 of this year 200 cities.
Actions have taken place in Denver in 2014 and in April. During the September 2014 action, Rev. Demmer and two others sat down in the middle of East Colfax and Pennsylvania to draw attention to the workers' economic plight and subsequently were arrested.
It wasn't his first arrest. A few years ago Demmer participated in a Columbus Day protest, was arrested and shared a jail cell with Native American professor and activist Ward Churchill.
MSNBC's Chris Hayes contends that the minimum wage campaign has 'entirely changed the politics of the country". In June 2014 Seattle made history by transitioning the demands from the streets to official policy. The City Council unanimously approved implementation of a $15 an hour minimum wage for public workers over the next few years.
Since then Oakland. San Francisco, Los Angeles, Chicago, Washington, D.C. and the states of Alaska, Arkansas, and New York have announced plans for a minimum wage increase. President Obama has endorsed raising the federal minimum wage, and the Democratic Party is holding discussions on the issue.
Retail giants such as Walmart and Target have announced wage increases. So has McDonalds, but there is "a devil in the details". Only 10% of McDonalds workers are directly employed by the giant conglomerate. The other 90% are employed by franchises which have the authority to set their own policies.
The Service Employees Union International (SEIU) has been working for the fast-food workers' right to organize and will work on the McDonald's franchise issue.
"The struggle continues," said Rev. Demmer. "The root of many social problems in our society has to do with the economy. Since it it is incumbent upon the church to lead the fight and be a voice for the voiceless, I will continue in my role as advocate," he continued.
(This article originally appeared in the June 2015 edition of the Denver Urban Spectrum)