April 16, 2015
By Steven Wishnia
From Boston to Birmingham, in Rochester, Richmond, and Raleigh, North Carolina, people in more than 230 cities marched yesterday to demand a $15-an-hour minimum wage. The Service Employees International Union, a main backer of the “Fight for 15” campaign, called it “the largest mobilization of underpaid working people in modern American history.”
“It's back-breaking to try to stay afloat and provide the basics for a family on low wages. It's a daily struggle, one that hurts families,” SEIU President Mary Kay Henry wrote. “It's not only fast-food workers, child-care teachers, and adjunct professors, but also airport workers, home-care workers and so many others see that they share. It doesn't have to be this way. People who work for a living instinctively know this.”
In Chicago, most of the people who turned out for a rally at the University of Illinois campus were fast-food workers, but many were adjunct professors. “In my wildest dreams, I would never think I would be a Ph.D. on welfare," Wanda Evans-Brewer, a 48-year-old mother of three, told the Chicago Tribune. She made $27,000 last year teaching ten courses at Concordia University in the suburb of River Forest, low enough to qualify for food stamps and Medicaid.
In Hartford, Connecticut, about 1,000 people demonstrated outside the state capitol, with the crowd dominated by women health-care workers. “Enough is enough,” Motesha Perry, 32, told the Hartford Courant. She said that she works 70 hours a week at two jobs, days in a program for the developmentally disabled and other hours at a group home, and hasn’t gotten a raise in more than four years.
“It is probably the most important civil-rights issue in front of us today: that we have developed an entire class of people who are paid to live in poverty,” the Rev. Donna Simon told a noon rally of more than 200 people in Kansas City. The day there began outside a McDonald’s at 6:30 a.m. and went on to a rally in front of a nonprofit that hires home health workers to take care of disabled people.
San Diego’s fight for $15 featured 15 separate demonstrations, with security guards picketing the Symphony Towers hotel and office complex, home-care workers rallying at San Diego State University, and protests outside a McDonald’s and a Sonic Drive-In. The City Council voted last August to raise the minimum wage there to $11.50 by 2017, overriding Mayor Kevin Faulconer’s veto, but business groups collected enough petition signatures to put the issue on the ballot, delaying any increase until after the vote—which is not expected to come until next year. The AFL-CIO in January named San Diego one of seven cities where it will campaign to raise the minimum.
In Birmingham, Alabama, about 50 people rallied outside a McDonald’s. "The price of living is raising every year, but minimum wage is remaining the same, and I feel like it's not fair to us,” McDonald’s worker Jessica Whetstone, who is pregnant with her second child, told Al.com. "Fast food is not an easy job. We're slaving in there, and we deserve more than $7.25. That's why we're here today."
In North Charleston, South Carolina—the city where a police officer was filmed shooting unarmed Walter Scott in the back, and where Boeing workers will vote next week on whether to join the International Association of Machinists—about 20 people briefly blocked the entrance to a McDonald’s early in the morning.
"This is much more of an economic and racial justice movement than the fast-food workers strikes of the past two years," Fight for $15 organizing director Kendall Fells told USA Today.
McDonald’s, which earlier this month raised wages slightly at restaurants it directly owns, responded to the protests with a statement that the raise and “expanded educational opportunities for eligible employees at all restaurants” were “an important and meaningful first step as we continue to look at opportunities that will make a difference for employees.”
The National Council of Chain Restaurants took a harsher line. Executive director Rob Green said in a statement that “the leadership in organized labor refuses to acknowledge simple facts,” that raises announced recently by low-wage employers show that the market is working, and that “federal government wage mandates higher than local communities can afford do not help individuals earning a starting wage.”
The McDonald’s raises “don't apply to the 90 percent of McDonald's restaurants owned by franchisees,” Mary Kay Henry noted. The company has consistently insisted that its franchises are independent businesses and it’s not responsible for the wages they set.
Last December, the National Labor Relations Board held that McDonald’s “engages in sufficient control over its franchisees' operations” to share liability for labor-law violations, and that “this finding is further supported” by the company’s “nationwide response to franchise employee activities while participating in fast-food worker protests to improve their wages and working conditions.”