Push for a $15 minimum wage goes to college

Labor activists pushing for a $15 minimum wage are hoping that college campuses will teach a lesson to low-wage employers like McDonald's (MCD).

The Fight for $15 labor movement is planning an ambitious expansion on April 15, coordinating a series of global labor strikes with protests on college campuses. The tax-day strike will include rallies and marches on 170 university campuses, including Columbia University and University of Southern California, the organizers said.

Expanding the labor movement to college campuses hearkens back to successful social movements that included pressure from university students, such as the 1980s divestment campaign against U.S. corporations that invested in apartheid-era South Africa. While college students have long served as a vocal social force in American history, though, there's a growing group on campuses seeking higher wages: adjunct professors.

"The universities I work for the pay me next to nothing and treat me like I'm expendable," said Tiffany Kraft, an adjunct professor in Portland, Oregon, in a statement. "I joined the Fight for $15 to demand higher wages and more respect for our role as educators."

Adjunct professors typically earn about $20,000 to $25,000 per year and don't receive health benefits or job security, even though they hold doctorates or other advanced degrees.

The Fight for $15 is aiming to snowball into a national movement that includes all low-wage workers, whether they're adjunct professors with PhDs who sometimes make less than fast-food workers or low-skilled workers standing behind a fast-food counter.

April 15 will include what the organizers call "the largest-ever mobilization of underpaid workers," with strikes scheduled in countries ranging from Brazil to Japan. It's also connecting the strike to the #BlackLivesMatter movement that came out of the killings of unarmed black youths, bringing in questions of racial pay equity and earning a living wage.

While it may strike many as far-fetched that low skilled workers should earn a baseline wage of $15, the labor movement has seen some success since it started in November 2012. The federal baseline wage remains stuck at $7.25 an hour, yet an increasing number of states and cities are legislating higher minimum wages as a way to provide living wages to all workers.

Twenty-one states raised their minimum wages in January, benefiting more than 3.1 million workers. Seattle will enact its $15 per hour minimum wage, the highest in the country, starting on April 1.

"People thought we were crazy to call for $15 an hour, but all across the country, cities, states and employers are raising wages significantly because of the stand we are taking," Alvin Major, a KFC worker, said in the statement. "And so many different workers are joining our fight that we will win better pay so our families can succeed and our communities can prosper."

While the college students aren't asking that their universities divest shares of low-wage employers, their concern is that they're graduating into a job market where many can only find low-paid work in child care or the restaurant industry. Given the rising cost of college and student loan debt, that makes low-wage jobs even more onerous.

Aside from states and cities legislating higher minimum wages, there are other signs that the movement is having an impact. Walmart (WMT), the nation's largest private employer, said last month that it will boost the wages for 500,000 workers, ensuring that store employees earn at least $9 per hour.

Walmart's decision could have a ripple effect on other employers, which might need to boost their wages to compete with the giant retailer to hire and retain workers.