Denver – Immigrant janitor and father Javier Elizalde works full time but does not make enough money to feed his family. On April 15, Tax Day, Elizalde marched with more than 1,000 other Coloradans demanding that the minimum wage be raised to $15 an hour and that workers in all professions – especially fast food and higher education – have the right to unionize.
The Denver rally coincided with walkouts and protests in more than 200 cities nationwide, a labor movement that’s being called the largest in U.S. history.
Elizalde, 34, immigrated from Mexico. His three children were born here. He works as a custodian at the University of Colorado, Boulder. He has a visa and wants to become a U.S. citizen.
But making just over $10 an hour, even working full-time, Elizalde says he doesn’t earn nearly enough to support his five-person family. He travels at least weekly to the local food bank in order to have enough to feed them. Unable to save for emergencies, much less holidays or birthdays, Elizalde has wracked up credit card debt.
“We’re working for the state, for Colorado. We’re working hard,” he said. “How come we can’t survive in these conditions? We feel like the last people in the world.”
Elizalde is one of 627 CU employees who make less than $15 an hour. The University acknowledged those figures, but added that they employ some 29,000 people overall and that wages are set by the state, not by the school.
Public employee union Colorado WINS found that more than 2,500 public employees in Colorado make less than $15 an hour, that many rely on public or charity services and that a disproportionate percent of them are women and/or minorities.
“It just feels so unfair,” said Elizalde. “How are my kids going to go to University? How? You have big dreams but you have to have two, three jobs just to survive.”
Elizalde said immigrants have just as big a role to play in U.S. labor politics as those who’ve been here for generations. He added that Americans can learn a lot from the robust history of labor movements in Latin America.
“No matter what country you come here from, we all have a dream to improve our families’ lives,” said Elizalde. “That’s why we take these actions, because we want to be stronger as people, a community, a state and a country.”
More than 1,000 fast food workers, adjunct professors, home care workers and public employees rallied on the Auraria Campus April 15 for a $15 minimum wage and unionization rights. Photo courtesy Jenny Davies-Schley.