Pedestrians in midtown Manhattan got to witness one of the strangest perp walks in recent memory on Thursday, when protesting fast food workers staged a mock citizens’ arrest of Ronald McDonald, Colonel Sanders, and other activists dressed up to represent Burger King, Wendy’s and Domino’s Pizza. Protesters escorted the handcuffed clown, colonel, king, and their alleged accomplices from the corner of Broadway and 50th Street to Broadway and 51st.
The protesters were there to lobby for a higher minimum wage in New York City, where workers can be legally paid as little as $8 per hour and the cost of living is at a national high. The merits of a wage hike aside, the city appears politically primed for an increase. Freshman mayor Bill DeBlasio came into office vowing to combat economic inequality, and the city council’s new speaker has come out in favor of raising the wage. But there’s one major roadblock in the way of the proposal: Under state law, individual cities have no control over their own minimum wages.
In other words, New York City’s minimum wage is fixed at $8 per hour because that’s what the state’s minimum wage happens to be. Raising the city’s wage would require either doing the same for the rest of the state or giving New York City control over its own wage laws. Protesters were demanding that the state legislature pass a proposed law which would do the latter and make it possible for New York’s city council to take matters into their own hands.
Democratic State Assemblyman Karim Camara, one of the bill’s two sponsors, spoke at the rally and argued that New York City should be able to have different minimum wage laws in order to reflect different economic realities.
“The reality is the cost of living is different in various parts of the state,” he said. “There’s nowhere where the cost of living is like it is in New York City, perhaps anywhere in the country.”
Camara is the chair of the State Assembly’s Black and Latino Caucus, and the racial composition of New York’s minimum wage labor force was very much on his mind as he addressed the crowd. In a statement being distributed at the rally, Camara said that he would not “stand by as we resign African American and Latino families to a cycle of poverty.”
Nationally, people of color make up a disproportionate share of minimum wage and low-wage workers. Over half of all tipped workers living below the poverty line are people of color, according to a report from the labor group ROC United, and over 40% of those who would be affected by a proposed increase in the federal minimum wage are black or Latino. In the fast food industry specifically, analysis by the Center on Economic Policy Research has found that black and Latino workers are overrepresented among adult fast food workers.
Members of the burgeoning fast food workers movement have alluded to the racial disparity in their industry before. When New York-based fast food employees went on strike last April, many of them carried signs reading “I AM A MAN” or “I AM A WOMAN,” quoting the slogan used by workers in the racially charged 1968 Memphis sanitation workers’ strike. The following month, during another fast food strike in Detroit, Mich., Rev. Charles Williams II promised a “long, hot summer” for activism in the fast food industry. Williams is the head of the Michigan chapter for the National Action Network, a racial justice group headed by msnbc’s Al Sharpton.
As the fast food workers campaign has grown in prominence, so have its critics. The workers have received strong institutional backing – and an indeterminate amount of guidance – from the labor union SEIU, leading a reporter for the labor-focused magazine In These Times to ask whether the campaign might ultimately turn out to be an SEIU-orchestrated “march on the media.” His fears might well have been confirmed by Thursday’s event, which was clearly more of a march on the media than a grassroots disruption. Not only was the event not a strike, but most of the speakers were state and local politicians, many of whom were introduced by the executive director of the SEIU group UnitedNY. (Full disclosure: The author of this piece was briefly an intern for UnitedNY.)
If the fast food movement is entering a more institutionalized, less combative phase in New York, then its leaders will be gambling on their ability to help push through specific legislation for the good of fast food workers. Recent events give them some reason to believe the gamble will pay off: Cities and states around the country have been racing to raise their minimum wages, in part because of pressure exerted by low-wage strikers. And if those workers who attended the rally were concerned that the movement’s energy might be ebbing, they certainly showed no sign on Thursday. Shantelle Walker, a worker at McDonald’s who became involved in the movement early on, suggested that the grassroots work of building a movement remains basically the same.
“We’re going to get stronger, we’re going to get bigger, and wer’e going to continue to fight,” said Walker. “We’ve got to be out here every day.”