A union-backed campaign to raise minimum wages across the country has rolled out what it says will be the biggest low-wage worker protest in history, with events planned in 200 cities around the globe.
In New York City, at the heart of the Fight for 15 movement, the action kicked off early, with a group of about about 1,000 construction workers, fast food employees, representatives of the Local 79 union, and their supporters gathering at 6 a.m. in front of a McDonald's in Downtown Brooklyn.
The protest was the first in a series of six planned events in the city, with plans for a "die-in" at a McDonald's store on the Upper West Side, a rally in Columbus Circle, and a student protest at Columbia University.
Standing next to a large group of #BlackLivesMatter representatives wearing sweatshirts that read "I Can't Breathe," Paul Mora chatted with his fellow construction union members, some with hard hats and all clad in brown Local 79 jackets.
"About 200 of us are here," Mora told BuzzFeed News. "We are here to get better jobs for the union, and to get a raise on the minimum wage. It's too low — it should be increased."
Fight for 15 has grown rapidly since its inception two and a half years ago, when 200 cooks and cashiers left their posts at various fast food restaurants in New York City, demanding at least $15 per hour, as well as the right to organize through labor unions. The demand for such a large wage hike seemed extremely ambitious, but has filtered through activist movements across the country and become something of a calling card for a revitalized form of worker organizing.
In recent months, Seattle and San Francsico have raised their minimum wages to $15 per hour, while New York lags behind, due to budget disagreements in Albany that ultimately struck down a proposal for a $15 minimum wage that Comptroller Scott Stringer argues will bring billions to workers in New York City alone.
"I don't think that these things would be talked about or the policymakers would be involved without the Fight for 15," Tsedeye Gebreselassie, a staff attorney for the National Employment Law Project, told BuzzFeed News on the eve of the April 15 strike. "Tomorrow is expected to be the biggest one yet, and even though a lot of the discussion has been around what they're doing to raise wages, it's just as much a demand for and a conversation around a union and the ability to organize, and to collectively bargain. It will also force a conversation about the disappearance of our middle class."
According to Berlin Rosen, the public relations team retained by Fight for 15, the strike will include tens of thousands of workers organizing in more than 200 cities worldwide throughout the day, and it's not just the fast food sector that the strikers will represent. College students, adjunct professors, home care and child care workers, Walmart employees, #BlackLivesMatter activists, as well as airport services workers will join the fast food constituency to call for a higher minimum wage and for union rights.
The goal is for the movement to first achieve its wage and collective bargaining goals, and then strive for broader quality of life issues, said Mary Kay Henry, president of the 2 million–member Service Employees International Union that has given extensive backing to the protest movement.
"It's growing beyond what we originally thought, and it's being joined by an expansive unit from other industries," Henry told BuzzFeed News. "We need to have the fastest jobs in the economy be good jobs, that people can support themselves on and provide for their families from. We think we have to improve people's lives at the bargaining table, in the streets, and at the ballot box, and continuing to move for change. When we win $15 in the union, that's just the beginning of a greater movement in the country. We think these unions ought to have a seat at the table with these multinational corporations, and we need voting rights for everyone involved."
Wednesday's protest comes nearly a year after 139 McDonald's employees also affiliated with Fight for 15 were arrested for trespassing near the company's headquarters in Oak Brook, Illinois, last May. Earlier this month, McDonald's announced it would raise minimum employee wages to $1 an hour over the minimum wage. The rise applies only to staff in company-owned restaurants — about 10% of its total outlets — as franchise owners determine salaries at the remainder.
The move was widely criticized and called "cynical" by employees.
"We respect people's right to peacefully protest," McDonald's said in a statement, describing its recent pay rise announcement as "an important and meaningful first step as we continue to look at opportunities that will make a difference for employees."
At the Downtown Brooklyn protest, a marching band, mariachi performers, a dance troupe, and at least 50 NYPD officers accompanied the huge procession as it snaked down the Fulton Mall heading to another McDonald's that did not appear to be open. Most fast food workers wore black hoodies that had the Fight for 15 logo and #BlackLivesMatter on the front and back. Construction workers in hard hats and labor leaders chanted, "What do we want?"
"Fifteen and a union!" the crowd responded.
"When do we want it?"
Most fast food employees who spoke to BuzzFeed News were spending their day off at the protest. One of them, Duane Gary, looked out at the crowd as things wrapped up around 7:45 a.m. on the Fulton Mall.
"I would feel more like a human being getting $15," said Gary, who works 36 hours a week at a Checkers restaurant in the Bronx. He holds a second job as a security guard for a truck lot in Queens. Both jobs pay him $8.75 per hour. "Right now it's not enough," he said. "I've got more bills than that."
A large constituency at the protest said they were current and former McDonald's workers. When asked to comment on the April 15 protest, McDonald's representative Lisa McComb relayed a sense that the demonstration was overblown.
"It may interest you to know that out of approximately 800,000 people who work in McDonald's restaurants, historically there have only been about 10–15 actual McDonald's workers who have participated in these staged events when they're held," McComb said Tuesday evening.
A group of six women, all wearing Fight for 15 black sweatshirts under their coats, huddled around a bench to hear the protest's culminating speeches from labor activists. They had come down on a bus hours earlier from the Nanuet, New York, McDonald's on their day off, despite their manager's reluctance to let them go.
"I'm off today, but my manager said I was supposed to come in and work," one of the women, Merye Gernlouys, told BuzzFeed News. Gernlouys, who has been a McDonald's employee for seven months, is originally from Haiti, but lives in Suffern now, commuting each day by bus to Nanuet for work. "I was burned by the grill. I make $8.94 per hour, and sometimes I get 25 hours in a week, sometimes I get 29 hours. I need $15."
As for what's next for the movement, NELP's Gebreselassie is optimistic the Fight for 15 will ultimately prevail.
"I think that there will be more policy victories to raise the wage floor," Gebreselassie said. "If McDonald's wants to be seen as a responsible company, a company that cares about its employees, and a company that cares our economic recovery, they'll have to raise the wage floor. It's clear the corporation can afford to pay their employees better and lift their workers out of poverty."