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Fast food convention portends escalation in strikes

More than 1,300 fast food workers agreed to a resolution vowing to do "whatever it takes" to get $15 per hour and union representation.

VILLA PARK, Ill. -- "Whatever it takes." That was the unofficial refrain for last weekend's fast food workers' convention in the suburbs of Chicago, where over 1,300 low-wage employees gathered to profess their dedication to the cause. On Saturday, the second and final day of the convention, workers unanimously passed a resolution to keep fighting and keep striking until they had won union representation and a $15 hourly wage. Many of the convention attendees wanted to go further -- even suggesting breaking the law.

"We need a nationwide sit," Mary Coleman, Milwaukee-based Popeyes Louisiana Kitchen employee and grandmother of six, told the other workers. "Across the nation, all fast food workers, retail workers, we pick a time, we pick a day, and everybody just stops."

Coleman spoke about the need for a nationwide sit-down strike during Saturday's pre-lunch discussion period, when she and other workers from the audience were given the opportunity to answer questions such as, "What else can we do in our cities to increase pressure on low-wage employers and grow our movement?"

She wasn't the only one to suggest more radical tactics than the day-long strikes which have thus far been the movement's calling card. A male audience member said workers should form human chains to prevent consumers from entering fast food restaurants. "Be aggressive in hitting their bottom lines," he said.

"We need to go on strike indefinitely," said another.

These apparently unprompted suggestions from the audience suggest popular support within the movement's rank-and-file for an escalation of tactics. Although the resolution adopted on Saturday did not specify what sort of strategy the fast food workers would employ going forward, movement leadership seemed to endorse a shift toward more radical methods at several points during the conference.

"We are going to break the law," Nancy Salgado, a McDonald's employee and leader among the local Illinois workers, said from the stage. "We've got to do whatever it takes to win, and we've got to do civil disobedience. We've got to do it."

Salgado was one of over 100 workers to get arrested during a May protest at McDonald's headquarters in Oak Brook, Ill. She and several other workers who were arrested on that day spoke at the convention and assured other workers that it is relatively safe to commit acts of civil disobedience on behalf of the cause.

"It wasn't nothing to be scared of. We were in, we were out, we were back home with our families," said Melinda Topel, a McDonald's worker from Kansas City, Mo. "And I guarantee you that if everyone in this room did civil disobedience, these corporations would have to listen to us."

The 13-person fast food workers' steering committee, which also MC'd the convention, had final approval over the scheduled events, including the one where Salgado, Topel and others discussed their arrests. The powerful labor union SEIU has poured millions of dollars into backing the fast food workers, but its not quite clear how its officials would feel about more confrontational fast food demonstrations. What is known is that SEIU president Mary Kay Henry, who delivered a laudatory speech to the workers on Friday night, was among those arrested at the May protest outside McDonald's headquarters.

As the movement has grown in size -- from 200 workers in one city back in November 2012, to thousands of workers in 150 cities just two months ago -- it has attracted other prominent supporters. Two of them delivered speeches on Saturday: Congressional Progressive Caucus chair Rep. Keith Ellison, D-Minn., and Rev. William Barber, leader of North Carolina's Moral Mondays protests. Ellison described the fast food strikes as "the most important worker movement in America today," while Rev. Barber portrayed them as part of a much larger, modern-day civil rights struggle.

"I think it's possible with the movement; when you connect these movements," Rev. Barber told msnbc, when asked if the fast food workers' demands were achievable in North Carolina. "When you connect the call for $15, for voting rights, to all of the other movements. This is a civil rights issue, [and] it's an economic issue."

The fast food movement itself has been happy to seize on those connections. A video shown at the convention on Saturday morning drew an explicit line between the civil rights era, organized labor, feminism, the immigrant justice movement, the push for marriage equality, and the fast food workers. Speakers repeatedly emphasized the inclusiveness of the fast food workers' movement, and its commitment to immigrant rights, racial justice, gender parity, and LGBT equality.

"We’ve got to do whatever it takes to win, and we’ve got to do civil disobedience. We’ve got to do it."'

For some of the workers, that commitment to cross-movement collaboration is more than theoretical. Anna Swauger, a Burger King employee in Greensboro, N.C., was arrested last month while participating in a Moral Mondays sit-in at the North Carolina legislative building.

"I was thinking it would be great to join a bigger group for something like that," she said, reflecting on the remarks by those workers who had been arrested at the McDonald's protest. "Because when I did it, there was 20 of us. I just think the bigger the number, the more powerful it's going to be."

Fast food workers and organizers have been very active in the South, a region of the country which has historically tended to be very hostile toward labor activism. But while the movement there must contend with unaccommodating state governments and relatively weak union infrastructure, local groups in other corners of America face a different set of challenges. In Seattle, Wash., which is on track to raise its minimum wage to $15 within the next few years, the question is whether the movement will be able to keep up the momentum when some of its demands have already been met.

"We already have the $15, so there's really nothing else to do but bring up all the other issues," said Julia Depape, a Seattle-based McDonald's worker. "Me personally, I'm trying to fight for a workers' union. I'm trying to get my people to want a union, so we can be better protected by our worker rights."

"Since we already won it, it kind of slows you down, just because," said Samuel LeLoo, a co-worker of Depape's. He said he hoped that attending the conference would "re-spark [his] flame."

For most attendees, lack of spark didn't seem to be an issue. At times, the convention took on something close to a party atmosphere, as audience members jumped on chairs, sang, dance, and chanted in unison. Both Friday ended with a series of musical acts; Milwaukee-based rapper Trunk Bussa performed the song "$15 and a Union." Douglesha Nicholson, a Pizza Hut employee from Kansas City, Mo., read an original poem called "The War," describing her experiences as a low-wage fast food employee.

"I stand tall and bite my tongue no more," she said, "for closed mouths don't get fed, and I'm ready to end this war."