Low-wage workers — and their sympathizers — had their say coast to coast on Wednesday.
Thousands of workers and protesters from New York City to Los Angeles walked, marched and shouted their demands in front of fast-food locations and on several major college campuses for $15-an-hour wages. No arrests were reported. At least one McDonald’s in New York City was temporarily closed by protesters. Several McDonald’s stores kept drive-throughs operating, even while the restaurants were temporarily locked.
Central to Wednesday’s strike is the evolution of its scope. What began two years ago as a fast-food workers movement has propelled into something wider, with Wednesday’s protests including a range of workers workers from adjunct professors to home care and child care providers to Walmart employees.
Strikers and protesters were occasionally joined by high-profile officials, such as former U.S. Labor Secretary Robert Reich, who led a walkout at a McDonald’s in Oakland prompting three workers to go on strike.
Organizers called it the largest-ever mobilization of U.S. workers seeking higher pay. That could not be confirmed, but thousands took part in the protests and campus activities in what organizers claim are 226 cities coast-to-coast. There also was a global element to the protests, with McDonald’s stores in Athens, Toronto, Sao Paulo and Hong Kong all hit by protesters demanding higher wages.
“It’s something different,” said Kendall Fells, organizing director of Fight for $15, which is funded by the Service Employees International Union. “This is much more of an economic and racial justice movement than the fast-food workers strikes of the past two years.”
Hundreds of protesters took to the streets across New York City. In Brooklyn, crowds blocked traffic. In Manhattan, organizers lay on the pavement outside a McDonald’s. Many chanted, “This is what democracy looks like,” and waved “Fight for $15” signs.
“We are the backbones of these fast-food restaurants, and I believe that we should be more rewarded,” said Jorge Math, a McDonald’s cashier who makes $8.75. “Most of us have to get a second job so we can sustain ourselves.”
Keeshan Harley came as a member of Make the Road New York, a nonprofit that focuses on justice issues. “In New York City, it’s kind of impossible to work on $8 an hour when you have $1,900 to $2,000 rents,” Harley said. “So we need $15 an hour. That’s the bare minimum. That is just moving toward sustainability in the city.”
The timing of the strikes on Tax Day was intentional, Fells said, to focus public attention on the strain that low wages place on public budgets and taxpayers when working families are forced to rely on public assistance.
As the 2016 presidential campaign just begins to take shape, wage fairness is an issue that presidential candidates may increasingly have to address. Today’s strike takes shape even as two of the nation’s largest private employers — Walmart and McDonald’s — both made recent, small movements to improve wages for employees.
This strike has some outspoken sympathizers, too. Among them: George Zimmer, founder and former CEO of Men’s Wearhouse. “I think that capitalism needs some modifications if it’s going to remain sustainable,” he said in a phone interview. “But I’m encouraged. I think this is the first generation since mine that’s prepared to collaborate, not just compete.”
Not everyone is so sympathetic. “The protests aren’t about wages or working conditions, they are about promoting the SEIU’s campaign to unionize the fast-food industry. Yet after investing two years and at least $30 million in these PR stunts, the SEIU still struggles to find actual employees to participate, let alone express an interest in joining a union,” said Glenn Spencer, vice president of the Workforce Freedom Initiative for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, in a statement.
McDonald’s, at the focal point of the protests, continues to insist that wages are set not by the company but by the independent franshisee owner at about 90% of its U.S. restaurants.
In a statement, McDonald’s said: “We respect people’s right to peacefully protest, and our restaurants remain open every day with the focus on providing an exceptional experience for our customers. Recently, McDonald’s USA announced a wage increase and paid time off for employees at its company-owned restaurants and expanded educational opportunities for eligible employees at all restaurants. This is an important and meaningful first step as we continue to look at opportunities that will make a difference for employees.”
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