Thousands of fast food workers fighting for a $15 hourly wage and union protection walked off their jobs on Sept. 4 in more than 150 U.S. cities. Some 465 workers and their supporters were arrested during the one-day strike for engaging in acts of civil disobedience, blocking streets around McDonald’s, Burger King, Pizza Hut, Taco Bell and other fast food chains.
This was the 10th day of strikes since the campaign began 21 months earlier in New York City after “Thanksgiving” 2012. It was also the first strike since 1,300 fast food workers held a national convention in July outside of Chicago, where workers vowed to do “whatever it takes” to win their goals.
With wages as low as $7.25 an hour, fast food workers’ earnings average $18,880 a year — below the federal poverty level for a family of two. More than 52 percent of these workers are forced to rely on public assistance. Meanwhile, U.S. fast food restaurants expect profits of $7.2 billion this year, according to research company IBISWorld, with fast food CEOs paid 1,200 times more than their workers.
Protests from coast to coast
Fast food workers employed by Wendy’s, McDonald’s, Taco Bell, Sonic, Long John Silver’s, Jr. Crickets and other chains took to the busy streets of Atlanta, where they were joined by home health care workers, union members from the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, the Communication Workers, the Service Employees, UNITE HERE, the Teamsters, the United Auto Workers, the Food and Commercial Workers and several postal workers unions, as well as faith and community groups.
The first protest began at 6 a.m. outside a midtown Burger King. At lunchtime more than 150 people gathered in front of Wendy’s at a busy intersection, then marched to a nearby McDonald’s. Occupying a major thoroughfare, chanting “We can’t survive on $7.25!” 10 workers sat down on the street holding a banner reading “Whatever it takes.”
The police shut the street down in both directions. No cars entered the McDonald’s drive-thru, nor were pedestrians able to enter the restaurant during the peak noontime hour. As police ordered them to move, young Black workers threw their hands up and chanted “Hands up! Don’t shoot!” — the phrase heard in Ferguson and across the U.S. demanding an end to police abuse.
More than 100 fast food protesters and supporters in Philadelphia marched a mile from a McDonald’s at Broad Street and Girard Avenue to a McDonald’s in Center City, chanting and holding signs demanding “$15 and a union.” The rally ended with the arrest of 11 workers who refused police orders to get off the street.
Fast food workers and their supporters staged two actions in Oakland, Calif., starting at 6:30 a.m. with a march on a Jack In the Box that had fired three workers a week earlier after they signed union cards. With doors locked, workers pounded on the drive-thru window demanding a response from management on the firings. The next stop was a McDonald’s a block away, where workers marched inside for a half-hour rally, chanting “¡McDonald’s escucha! ¡Estamos en la lucha!” [Listen up, McDonalds! We are in struggle!]
Workers and supporters regrouped at 11 a.m. at Oscar Grant Plaza in downtown Oakland, and then took to the street. Blocking the intersection on Broadway and 13th Street in front of a Burger King for an hour, they chanted: “Hold the burgers! Hold the fries! Make our wages supersized!” Several fast food workers and union organizers then sat down in the street and were arrested, cited and released.
Even after Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti announced a plan to raise the city’s minimum wage to $13.25 by 2017, hundreds of workers turned out to demand $15 an hour at two locations. At a South Los Angeles McDonald’s, protesters held a loud rally and then marched inside, chanting “L.A. is union territory!” Activists from the L.A. Workers Assembly signed up volunteers to petition to put a citywide minimum wage of $15 on the ballot in 2015. Union organizers and fast food workers signed up to get signatures in the four-month drive, soon to start.
A San Diego rally and march for $15 and a union kicked off at 5:30 a.m., when more than 100 people gathered at a McDonald’s in the City Heights neighborhood. These courageous workers left work to raise awareness that people cannot survive on $7.75 or even $9 an hour. The action was hosted by the Coalition for Labor and Community Solidarity, a group of community activists, students, union members, and Walmart retail and fast food workers united to build strength among San Diego workers.
Rally chair, the Rev. J. Lee Hill, reminded everyone of the long history of workers engaging in civil disobedience for change, from Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King Jr. to César Chávez. Eleven protesters, who sat at the intersection of University Avenue and the I-15 freeway entrance, were arrested, charged with unlawful assembly and later released. They said they were willing to get arrested to bring attention to the fact that everyday working families are making incredible sacrifices.
There were numerous major low-wage worker actions in Wisconsin. In Madison and Milwaukee dozens of workers were arrested after walking off their jobs or not going to work at all, and then sitting in roadways to demand “$15 and a union.” Other actions took place in Wausau. The actions were organized by Raise Up MKE and Wisconsin Jobs Now with support from many labor and community organizations, including the Wisconsin AFL-CIO and Workers World Party.
In Rockford, Ill., low-wage workers, including Fight Imperialism, Stand Together (FIST) member Tommy Cavanaugh, took arrests for blocking roadways to demand $15 and a union.
In Durham, N.C., workers took over a series of busy intersections, blocking traffic in each for an hour or more, and then moving to the next location. Workers chanted and danced around those obstructing traffic, accompanied by supporters pounding on drums, for nearly three hours. When the protest reached one of the busiest intersections at West Main and Great Jones streets in the downtown area, 23 workers sat in the middle of the street for over an hour. Police eventually arrested 26 protesters, including the workers, two campaign organizers and an attorney supporting the movement.
In Detroit hundreds of people began their demonstrations at 6:30 a.m., targeting a McDonald’s restaurant on the east side. Protesters blocked Mack Avenue on the city’s east side, prompting the police to move against demonstrators. Due to the 25 arrests, officers ran out of handcuffs.
In many cases, police say, the protesters were given the option to be released from custody, if they would just stop blocking the street. Police said that some of the protesters refused to stop and were arrested.
From Ferguson to NYC
Around 200 fast food workers protested outside a McDonald’s on Detroit’s east side. Police arrested 42 people who were blocking an intersection. Another 23 workers were arrested in Chicago when more than 150 fast food workers protested outside a McDonald’s.
In New York actions started before dawn, when fast food workers protesting against McDonald’s, Burger King, Wendy’s and KFC blocked traffic in Times Square. Later around 400 protesters filled Times Square during morning rush hour. Some staged a sit-in at a McDonald’s, leading to the arrests of 34 cooks and cashiers. Demonstrators carried signs reading “Low Pay is Not OK” and “On Strike to Lift My Family Up.”
Jeanina Jenkins, a McDonald’s worker from Ferguson, Mo., joined the New York fast food action out of respect for the family of Michael Brown. Jenkins said she believed the August protests over Brown’s death would be on the minds of many striking workers. “We’re fighting for the same thing, basically,” she said. (The Daily Rundown, Sept. 4)
In addition to fighting for a living wage, the striking workers want McDonald’s and other fast food chains to agree not to block their unionization drives. For the first time, fast food workers’ protests in several cities were joined by home care workers, helping to push the fight for $15 to become a larger low-wage workers’ movement.
Terri Kay, Dianne Mathiowetz, Bryan G. Pfiefer, Joe Piette, Scott Scheffer, Abayomi Azikiwe and Gloria Verdieu contributed to this report. WW photos: Sharon Black in Baltimore; John Parker in Los Angeles; Joseph Piette in Philadelphia; Gloria Verdieu in San Diego.