Thousands of low-wage employees in approximately 190 cities walked off the job Thursday in what organizers are calling the largest fast food worker strike to date.
Demanding $15-an-hour pay and the right to unionize without retaliation, fast food workers across the country hit the streets for the eighth time since the movement began two years ago with about a couple hundred employees in New York City. The campaign has since gone global, with one strike in May accompanied by solidarity rallies in 32 other countries. During the last nationwide fast food workers’ strike, on September 4, nearly 500 striking protesters were arrested in civil disobedience actions, such as blocking traffic.
No one participating in Thursday’s protest had been arrested as of the afternoon, and there were no reported international rallies. But what made the strike unique was that for the first time employees from discount and convenience stores, as well as workers from 10 of the nation’s busiest airports joined forces with fast food employees in their call for higher wages and better working conditions. Home health care workers, who first participated in September’s strike, turned out in larger numbers this time around too, and some employees of Wal-Mart Stores Inc., which recently saw its own series of strikes, also joined in.
“Now, it’s not just about fast food workers,” said Kendall Fells, organizing director for Fast Food Forward, in an interview with msnbc. “Just about every low-wage service sector industry is getting involved, which is pretty much the heart of the American economy.”
Their efforts are starting to show some results. In Seattle and San Francisco, lawmakers have passed measures raising wages to $15 an hour over the next couple of years. The growing campaign has also gained support from powerful allies, including the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) and members of the Congressional Progressive Caucus. But many workers in low-wage service sector industries still live in poverty.
“I can’t make it on this type of income,” Shantel Walker, 32, told msnbc. She’s worked on and off at Papa John’s Pizza in Brooklyn since 1999, but earns just $8.50 an hour – $.50 above the state’s minimum wage. Though she struggles to see 30 hours of work per week, Walker took off Thursday to participate in the strike. She said she wasn’t afraid of being fired or punished. “The punishment is making this type of money,” Walker said.
From Miami to Milwaukee; New York City to Los Angeles, protests began in the early hours of Dec. 4, the date workers unanimously agreed upon during a November conference call for their latest and largest strike. One of the protests’ main targets this time was McDonald’s, which according to PayScale, pays its employees an average wage of $9.15 an hour.
McDonald’s has said in a statement to Al Jazeera that the labor actions weren’t “strikes” at all, but rather “organized rallies for which demonstrators are transported to various locations, and are often paid for their participation.” Organizers vehemently deny the accusation that strikers are paid, except for some who can’t afford to take the day off; they’re paid less than a day’s wages from SEIU’s strike fund, the Washington Post reported.
“McDonald’s has spent the last two years trying to divert attention from the fact that their workers live in poverty,” Fells said. “Bottom line is, workers are not being paid to be on strike.”
Thursday’s protest in New York City was colored with outrage that flared up a day earlier after a grand jury decided not to indict NYPD Officer Daniel Pantaleo in the death of Staten Island resident, Eric Garner. The decision came just one week after a different grand jury reached the same conclusion in the case of Darren Wilson, a police officer who shot and killed Ferguson teenager Mike Brown. Both Garner and Brown were unarmed black men killed by white police officers.
After taking over a Burger King in Brooklyn, New York City protesters briefly disrupted an otherwise normal day at a McDonald’s in downtown Manhattan, cheering along with a marching band. Mixed in with “15 and a union” chants were the rallying cries, “Hands up, don’t shoot,” and “I can’t breathe,” both inspired by the deaths of Brown and Garner.
Many low-wage workers saw a connection between their protest Thursday and the ones that have covered the streets of Ferguson and Staten Island in the past week. As Fells put it, they’re all “fights against injustice in the U.S.”
“As fast food workers, we feel really upset about the [Eric Garner] decision,” Walker said outside the McDonald’s on Chambers Street. “This is our way of showing the world how we feel at this time. We want to fight the powers that be so we can be.”