Fast-food workers put their issues on the table

Elizabeth Schulte reports on the May 15 global day of action by fast-food workers--and what the Fight for 15 campaign means for low-wage workers everywhere.

Low-wage workers and their supporters picket a Chicago McDonald's (Bob Simpson | SW)Low-wage workers and their supporters picket a Chicago McDonald's (Bob Simpson | SW)

FAST-FOOD workers took to the streets on May 15 for their fifth day of strikes and protests in what has become a continuing campaign to draw attention to poverty wages and everyday disrespect on the job. Their demand: $15 and hour and a union.

In Chicago, 20-year-old McDonald's worker Shameka Williams had been out on the picket line with her coworkers since 6 a.m. "I support Fight for 15 because I can't live on $8.25," she said. "I can't afford to move out of my mother's house. $8.25 is just not enough."

This was Williams' second time striking. She explained why the demand for a union is so important: "I was two minutes late one day, and the manager suspended me for a whole week. The union has my back and supported me, and I got back pay for it."

The protests by workers at McDonald's, Burger King, Wendy's and other big fast-food chains, which began in New York City in 2012, has helped change the conversation about what kind of wages workers deserve and helped put words like "union" and "strike" back in the mainstream discussion.

For May 15, the call for a $15 minimum wage and a union was shared by activists in 150 U.S. cities and more than 30 countries. The days of walkouts became global for the first time, with workers and supporters walking the picket lines at fast-food restaurants in cities in Europe, Japan, New Zealand, Brazil and elsewhere.

In Mumbai, India, workers protested despite a police threat to halt the protests. International support appeared throughout the day on Twitter and Facebook, sending a message to strikers in U.S. cities that they are not alone in their struggle.

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IN CHICAGO, workers at fast-food restaurants across the city and their supporters focused their attention on the Rock 'n' Roll McDonald's--the company's two-story flagship restaurant in Chicago, replete with its own museum.

During past days of action in Chicago, Fight for 15 protests have traveled to several low-wage employers throughout the day. This time, they focused their fire on one location from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m.--to have the experience of taking over a location all day long, as one activist explained. Hundreds of fast-food workers from across the city and their supporters helped keep the picket line strong and loud all day, despite pouring rain in the morning and cold weather throughout the day.

Contingents of workers representing various members and community groups, such as the Coalition for the Homeless, arrived throughout the day to show their solidarity. Later in the day, the Albany Park Neighborhood Association marched in, carrying flags from around the world--representing both the people of that multi-ethnic Chicago neighborhood and those taking part in the global protests that day.

The Fight for 15 demonstrations have been largely organized through the Service Employees International Union (SEIU). While critics of the protests point out that the union--whose members can attest to its undemocratic history--keeps tight control on the public message at many events, these actions have nevertheless provided workers with an opportunity to speak out about their jobs and working conditions.

One issue that the campaign has focuses on is stolen wages. According to a 2013 survey of fast-food workers by the group Fast Food Forward in New York City, 84 percent of workers said their employer had committed wage theft of some kind in the past year. This is why protesters dressed as the Hamburglar--"Ready to steal your wages"--or Ronald McDonald in handcuffs are familiar sights on fast-food workers' protests.

McDonald's now faces seven class-action lawsuits in New York, California and Michigan for wage theft, with employees accusing franchise owners of forcing them to work off the clock and/or underpaying them for overtime, among other violations.

Beyond exposing how these multimillion-dollar corporations squeeze workers, these protests also demonstrate that low-wage workers are not alone--and that they can organize and fight back.

Tyree Johnson has worked for McDonald's for 22 years, and May 15 was his fifth strike. Like a lot of people at the protest in Chicago, he described being a little hesitant and a little worried about getting fired the first time. But not any more. "In baseball, they say three strikes and you're out," he said. "Well, this is my fifth strike, and I'm still in."

Johnson said it was difficult to get his coworkers on the picket line because many of them were afraid of being deported. The protest helped him gain confidence that he could continue organizing. "While we were protesting here, two workers walked out," Johnson said. "This made me think that if they can do this at this store, we can do it at our store."

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THESE PROTESTS have helped raise the bar about what workers should expect from their employers--not just a work day free of harassment and substandard working conditions, but something better. That's what the $15 demand means.

In today's political climate--with Corporate America pleading poverty, while politicians back them up with a message of belt-tightening and "shared sacrifice" that only applies to workers--Fight for 15 protests have helped popularize the message that Corporate American can afford to pay its workers a living wage.

"McDonald's expects a lot from us," said 42-year-old Jamie, a worker for the fast-food giant who traveled from Rockford, Ill., to be part of the demonstration. "Now we're making our demands. We're coming together with our coworkers, and we're fighting for the right to join a union and $15 an hour...If they can get it in Seattle, we can get it in Chicago."

The strikes have also helped steel workers for the difficult organizing they do among their coworkers in their own workplaces every day.

"It's very important for workers to stand in solidarity with other workers--especially when they stand up for their rights and the right to be treated fairly and with respect," said a protester who works at a Whole Foods grocery store. "I know they will do the same when we organize."

He and his coworkers have organized strikes at Chicago-area Whole Foods, but currently, fellow activists face retaliation from the company. He said the fast-food workers' strikes helped build confidence--"to see other folks do it and win gains. There are individual cases I can point to where folks won raises or changes in attendance policies, and each one is an inspiration for workers across the country."

He emphasized the importance of a union. "You can't win $15 and hold onto $15 without having a union and right to collectively bargain," he said. "We've seen in the last 40 years that wages will get cut away over the course of time, and you'll see those gains go away if you don't organize together and collectively bargain. The union demand is just as important, if not more important, than the $15 demand."

The low-wage workers' strikes have even forced some of the people slowest to take up workers' concerns--members of the U.S. Congress--to show their support. Days before the global day of action, members of the Congressional Progressive Caucus made a video supporting a $15 minimum wage and the right to join a union. Local progressive Democrats appeared at several of the picket lines.

We should remind these politicians of the promises they made at Fight for 15 rallies when they're back in Washington making actual policy. If it weren't for low-wage workers who risked their jobs to turn out to strikes and protest, the Democrats in Congress wouldn't even be talking raising the minimum. Because of activism, they are.

If all this talk is going to turn into actual action--and not the Democratic Party's half-hearted attempt at federal legislation for a meager raise to a $10.10 minimum wage, which failed last month--it will be grassroots pressure that forces them.

The labor movement should have learned its lesson with the Employee Free Choice Act debacle in 2009. Instead of siding with organized labor, which helped get Obama into the White House while putting off its own demands, the Democrats have served their friends in Corporate America, who oppose fast-food workers' unionizing at all costs.

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IN OTHER U.S. cities, fast-food workers joined supporters to demand $15 and a union.

-- In Boston, 250 fast-food strikers gathered downtown. At an early-morning action in Dorchester, dozens of protesters shut down a local Burger King. Fight for 15 and a Union, a project of the community organization Mass Uniting, has been organizing fast-food workers for nearly a year.

-- In Los Angeles, some 95 fast-food workers took part in a daylong action. A community picket, which featured protesters standing at the doors of a McDonald's and near its drive-through, encouraged workers going to work to instead opt to strike.

More than 20 employees chose to participate in the strike, according to Samuel Quintero, an employee at the store and member of the L.A. Organizing Committee. "We have language barriers between Blacks and Browns here in South Central," said Bart Olome, who has worked at McDonald's for 21 years, "but when we go on strike together, it helps build up the unity, the unity (we need) to get better benefits and health care along with a union."

-- Some 150 people rallied and marched in Philadelphia. "I don't make enough to take care of my son, let alone pay for utilities, phone bills, diapers and everything else," said Shamira Jones, a 20-year-old mother who has worked at Popeye's for five years and makes just $7.60 an hour. "I'm out here today because I'm fighting for what's right--I'm fighting for $15 and a union. I can't fight and win by myself, but I know we all as a group, together, can win."

-- Hundreds turned out in New York City to march and rally in Union Square for $15 and a union, including organizing a banner drop at a McDonald's.

-- About 50 people turned out for Fight For 15 strike actions in Austin, Texas, including a march that stopped for "flash rallies" at fast-food stores along the way.

The success of this action was in large part due to two striking workers, Alonzo and Kenneth of Church's Chicken and Popeye's, who in their speeches made clear the fact that their actions were necessary for the survival of their families.

-- In Seattle, socialist City Council member Kshama Sawant and 15 Now kicked off signature-gathering for their ballot initiative and the May 15 day of action. Surrounded by reporters, the goal to gather 20,000 signatures within the first two weeks of the campaign was announced in front of one of Seattle's busiest McDonald's.

Sawant was among a number of people to be the first to publicly sign the petition--others included Hilary Stern, executive director of the nonprofit Casa Latina, which has already led the way to $15 by paying its employees to this standard; David Yao, local vice president of American Postal Workers Union; and Omar Muman of the Somali American Public Affairs Council.

Low-wage workers signed as well, including Carlos Hernandez, an advocate for fast-food workers rights who was fired from Subway last October for giving a free cookie to a 3-year-old.

Workers walked out of a McDonald's location, Domino's Pizza and a prominent downtown Target. Some 150 attended a rally downtown.

-- In Oakland, Calif., more than 50 people gathered at the office of Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment before marching and briefly occupying a nearby McDonald's. A number of workers from different fast-food restaurants spoke as well as a group of workers who drove in from part of the fast-food supply chain located in the Central Valley.

"I'm striking to change people's perception of workers," said young McDonald's worker named Karla. "We're not criminals or kids trying to make money on the side, and we can't live off $8.25."

Later in the day, 250 workers and supporters rallied downtown Oakland, shutting down a McDonald's on 14th and Jackson and led a spirited march down 14th to shut down the Burger King on Broadway.

Michael Brown, Autumn Brown, E.C. Kuklinski, Adrian Orozco, Dan Russell and Lilian Wehbe contributed to this article.