Low-wage workers in the tens of thousands, in 263 cities and towns, went on strike from coast to coast on April 15 for $15 an hour and union representation without retaliation. It signaled a growing escalation in the workers’ struggle in the U.S.
Joined by protests in 40 countries on five continents — from San Paulo, Brazil, to Seoul; Amsterdam to Auckland, New Zealand; Toronto to Tokyo — April 15 represents an emerging global movement against low wages.
Nothing like this upsurge of working-class protest has been seen in the U.S. since the national May Day demonstration in 2006, led by thousands of migrants from many nations.
Organizers deliberately called the nationwide protest on April 15, Tax Day, to emphasize that taxpayers subsidize mega-billion-dollar imperialist giants like McDonald’s and Walmart that pay workers poverty wages. A study, released April 13 by the Labor Center at the University of California Berkeley, reports $153 billion for such public assistance as food stamps, Medicaid and housing subsidies is needed to sustain underpaid working families.
A report by the National Employment Law Project, also released April 13, found nearly half the U.S. workforce (42 percent) makes less than $15 an hour. Women and people of color are disproportionately represented in the underpaid workforce, with over 50 percent of African-American workers and nearly 60 percent of Latino workers making less than $15.
Three new layers broaden struggle
Workers in the fast food industry started this struggle two and a half years ago. This time other sectors were also on board with walkouts, marches, rallies and die-ins, from Atlanta to Los Angeles. In addition to members of community and faith-based groups and unionized workers proudly showing solidarity, three new groups came out for the first time: workers in other low-wage jobs, activists in the Black Lives Matter movement and students.
Legions of underpaid, unorganized home care and child care workers, car washers, adjunct and graduate student teachers, retail and dollar store clerks, unorganized construction laborers, airport service and laundry workers, and all kinds of part-time, temporary and contract workers joined the Fight for $15.
For the first time, manufacturing workers joined the strike. Members of the United Electrical Workers Local 150 in Whitakers, N.C., who work at the Cummins Inc. Rocky Mount Engine Plant, held a press conference to announce their support for Fight for $15: “Thousands of manufacturing workers, including over 100 RMEP workers, are paid even less than the $10.10/hr minimum wage President Obama has advocated. We are also fighting against companies’ violating our union rights.” (UE press release)
Voting spontaneously to walk off the job in Chicago were a group of about 50 unorganized drivers and security guards at Brink’s, the global security company. They’re fed up because the company recently reduced its contribution to their 401(k)s; now pays for only five hours of overtime, though they often put in 60- to 80-hour weeks; and new messengers and drivers make less than $15, while United Postal Service and FedEx workers make over $20 an hour. (In These Times, April 15)
African-American youth linked the Black Lives Matter movement to the low-wage struggle. A banner headline on the Facebook page of Fast Food Forward proclaims: “Economic justice is racial justice.” Dramatic links were made when early-morning demonstrators in Brooklyn, N.Y., picketed a McDonald’s wearing T-shirts reading, “I can’t breathe, Fight for $15.” And a die-in was staged at noon in front of a McDonald’s on the Upper West Side of Manhattan for four minutes and 15 seconds — to symbolize the struggle.
“We joined the Fight for $15 because, for us, racial justice is economic justice,” said Charlene A. Carruthers, national director of Black Youth 100. “We believe that Black workers have paid undeserved debts to greedy corporations for far too long.” Her nonprofit organization started the Black Work Matters campaign, also known as Fight for $15. (Common Dreams, April 15)
After demonstrating in Memphis, more than 200 workers and students, joined by forces from Little Rock, Tenn., boarded chartered buses and several small vans for the five-hour drive to join the Fight for $15 action in Ferguson, Mo.
College and university students came out in droves, driven by the burden of student loans and foreseeing a debt-ridden future. “It’s important for students to be involved,” said Robert Ascherman, a student activist from New York University, “because even if we aren’t working for McDonald’s or Walmart, we are still on McDonald’s or Walmart type of wages.” Even now, some students have to choose between buying food or buying textbooks.
Mary Kay Henry, Service Employees international president, said that students on 170 campuses were expected to join the struggle. On a recent tour of six colleges, she “saw students everywhere on fire to fight for their future and link arms with these workers … to change this low-wage economy.”
Even the Wall Street Journal, the ruling-class mouthpiece, ran an article April 15 stating that though $15 an hour for fast food workers “seems a real stretch” … [it] “may not be such a reach,” citing cities like Seattle and San Francisco where workers are now making $15 an hour and noting struggles in many cities and states to boost their minimum wage.
The working-class genie that popped out of the capitalist bottle on April 15 — asserting the collective might of a determined working class — cannot be shoved back into that bottle.
Fight for $15 Roundup
Members and friends of Workers World who participated in or observed the Fight for $15 and a union struggle on April 15 sent in reports from their cities. Excerpted or lightly edited versions appear here.
Over 100 people spilled into the street at a Fight for $15 sidewalk rally called by the Workers Center of Central New York and Service Employees 1199 Local 200United. “Strike poverty!” was the cry, as several low-wage women workers spoke of their struggles. One said of her part-time fast food job: “I work as hard as any factory worker.”
Community and labor support was dramatic. Organized labor turned out, from many building trades locals — including roofers, insulators, plumbers—to members from transit, civil service, health care, teacher and writer unions. Present were local members of the United Auto Workers who had militantly refused New Process Gear’s offer to “save their jobs” — they gave thumbs down to a paycut to $16 an hour.
Organizations in support included the Upstate Coalition to Ground the Drones and End the Wars, Syracuse Peace Council, Spanish Action League, Green Party and local churches.
— Minnie Bruce Pratt
Over 500 marchers demanding a $15 minimum wage and a union, some of them fast food store strikers, took over JFK Boulevard near the 30th Street Station as part of the largest U.S. low-wage worker protest in modern history.
Adjuncts and students at Temple University and the University of Pennsylvania, airport, laundry, health care, nursing home and restaurant workers marched with a large contingent of purple-shirted Service Employee members and other union and social activists. The protesters stopped for a short rally in front of the Comcast Headquarters, a $130 billion company which pays very little in Philadelphia taxes, yet actively opposes sick leave for low-wage restaurant workers.
Rallies also took place on North Philly’s Temple campus, on West Philly’s UPenn campus and in South Philadelphia before eventually joining this city’s largest low-wage protest to date.
— Joseph Piette
Over 100 people participated in a spirited rally and march to demand $15 an hour and a union. Protesters called for a livable wage and no police terror, racism and water shutoffs — referring to the city’s plan to shut off water to 25,000 Baltimore city and county residents. Community and Black Lives Matter activists came together with trade union members and low-wage workers.
Courtney Jenkins, American Postal Workers Union member and the new head of the Young Trade Unionists, along with Sharon Black, of the People’s Power Assembly, chaired the event. Low- wage workers testified to the hardships they encountered on the job. Fred Mason, president of the Maryland and D.C. AFL-CIO, spoke along with APWU Local 181 President George Askew. University of Maryland, Baltimore County student Benji Shulman helped to lead songs, along with Dick Ochs and Andre Powell, who is an American Federation of State, County, Municipal Employees delegate to the Baltimore Metropolitan Council.
The group marched to a nearby McDonald’s at Light and Baltimore streets. A heavy police presence guarded the McDonald’s entrance. After a second rally there, the group took to the streets and marched to the Main Post Office in solidarity with postal workers who had turned out in large numbers. The postal workers are fighting the privatization of postal services and the plan to turn union work over to low-wage, non-union Staples.
The Baltimore action in support of low-wage workers was initiated by the People’s Power Assembly, its sister group “We Deserve Better” Workers Assembly and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, Baltimore Chapter. The Baltimore Metropolitan Council of the AFL-CIO endorsed the action and sent information to all their affiliates.
Organizers noted that Baltimore is deeply impoverished, with one out of every four people living in poverty, with low wages a major reason. The number of unionized workers in Baltimore is low because the majority of work is in traditional low-wage jobs like fast food and retail. Many of the major industries like steel and auto have closed their plants.
— Workers World Baltimore bureau
Thousands gathered together from all across the state, many with the assistance of a fleet of buses carrying people from as far afield as Charlotte, on the campus of Shaw University, the birthplace of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee 55 years ago, to demand that all workers earn a living wage of $15 an hour for their labor. The crowd, excited in spite of the rain, beheld with rapt attention a diverse array of speakers, drawn from the ranks of students, adjunct faculty and fast food, home care, child care, public service and farm workers, all of whom articulated their need to be treated with dignity for their socially necessary labor. They also univocally condemned the conditions of poverty which their various employers have deemed fit to foist upon them.
A keynote address was delivered afterwards by North Carolina NAACP President Rev. Dr. William Barber, in which he castigated material deprivation as itself being a form of violence, highlighted links between the struggles for economic and racial justice, and cited Dr. King’s proclamation on March 18, 1968, that unless the United States addresses the issue of poverty it will, like Dives for refusing to aid Lazarus, “Go to Hell.”
The crowd then began a march, first crossing over a pair of footbridges, which shook under the weight of the multitude, spanning the three lanes of S. Blount Street, then striding through another block of Shaw’s campus before ultimately spilling out onto S. Wilmington Street. They then headed north toward, E. South Street, as they filled the air with chants such as “We can’t survive on $7.25.” As they walked around the block and passed under the bridges they had earlier crossed, a large segment of the crowd began to chant “Black Lives Matter,” recognizing in that slogan, not solely opposition to the heinous murders of Black people at the hands of the police, but also affirmation that Black housing, Black health care, Black employment and Black wages matter.
The procession continued around the block back to Wilmington Street, where it stopped near a sign commemorating the founding of SNCC in 1960. Underneath the sign more workers offered testimonials of their maltreatment by the rapacious capitalist class.
— Patrick Snipes
At a press conference here, United Electrical Workers Local 150 members at Cummins Inc. Rocky Mount Engine Plant announced that they are joining the international fight for a $15 minimum wage and union rights. The movement started with fast food workers; RMEP workers are the first known manufacturing workers in the country to join this movement. Today’s press conference was the only known activity in Eastern North Carolina that was part of this international day of action.
Jimmie Thorne, chair of the DTZ workers branch of the UE150 Union, said, “We are here to support fast food and other service workers. Thousands of manufacturing workers, including over 100 workers RMEP workers, are paid even less than the $10.10/hr minimum wage President Obama has advocated. We are also fighting against companies’ violating our union rights.”
Marilyn Williams, quality inspector and union member at RMEP contractor Tri-County Industries, makes only $7.50 per hour. “We can’t live on that. While contract workers are not direct employees of Cummins’ RMEP, RMEP must spend some of the billions in profit so that we can make a $15-an-hour minimum wage.”
Rev. Vivian Lucas, of the National United Church of Christ, committed the ministry to “support a living wage for workers at the RMEP plant and all Eastern N.C. manufacturing workers [many of whom are African American].” Black Lives Matter in the workplace and community; workers, their families and communities are in a literal life-and-death situation.
A unique aspect of this fight is that the union is holding RMEP accountable for the wages of all workers, including the contractors. RMEP contractors do housekeeping, maintenance, delivery, inspecting, packing, security and other jobs. DTZ, Tri County Industries, Manpower, Insource, Universal Protection Services and FDY are some of these contractors. Other workers joining the overall national fight movement are child care, home health care and adjunct/temporary university faculty.
The Carolina Auto, Aerospace and Machine Workers Union is also calling for a $2 hour technician pay scale increase for Cummins workers at RMEP: Raise entry pay from $13.19 to $15.19, raise top pay from $20.91 to $22.91 and raise all levels of the 14-step pay scale by $2 an hour.
Recently 500 workers from North Carolina and ten other southern states gathered at Dr. King’s Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta to build the movement for economic and racial justice and pledge to organize the South. They were joined by members of the 1968 Memphis sanitation workers’ strike who marched with Dr. King before he was assassinated.
— UE150 press release
Both big and militant, the day started with a rally on the Atlanta University campus with a wide variety of low-wage workers representing fast food, home health care, domestic, retail, airport workers and adjunct professors. Various unions, including the Teamsters and the Communication Workers, came with signs and banners, as did the NAACP, SCLC, DSA and others. The International Action Center had two banners.
The crowd of about 600 took the streets, marching to a nearby McDonald’s where they rushed in, filling the place with chants. Militant protesters stood on tables, waving their signs. Hundreds surrounded the building, shutting it down for about half an hour before marching two blocks to Walmart. The crowd blocked the entrance, which management had already locked when they saw the demonstration coming. Security let customers out but no one in. The protesters chanted there for about 30 minutes. The police were there throughout, but didn’t take any action to stop the protest from taking the streets, swarming inside the McDonald’s or blocking the Walmart doors.
— Dianne Mathiowetz
The wage protests started early around 6, with a group of about 20 people in front of one of the busier McDonald’s. The group remained small until it moved to the University of Memphis campus, where students and some professors quickly swelled the ranks to at least 100. A table was set up by the people who organized the day’s protests: the MidSouth Peace and Justice Center and the Show Me 15 members, who handed out T-shirts, stickers, signs and buttons. The crowd heard from local workers and university personnel brave enough to speak out. Between speakers there were chants of “Show me $15 and a union.”
After an hour on campus, a larger group marched through the University Student Center, with chants of “Who shuts shit down? We shut shit down!” and calls echoing off the walls for fast food workers to come join us. The group then marched to another McDonald’s, where it spread out along the block, and we heard from more local workers. Many cars honked approval.
Shortly before we were to depart for Ferguson, Mo., a charter bus from Little Rock arrived, swelling our numbers to around 250 to 300 people. The atmosphere was incredible; there was a tangible feeling of pride and optimism that we had beaten the apathy that often plagues many social and political movements in Memphis, if even only for a day. The police had been hands-off, allowing us to march where we wanted so long as we stayed on public property. A couple even spoke to a small group privately and voiced their support for our protest.
The only trouble that we experienced was when we went to board the buses to Ferguson. The only white driver refused to transport part of the group when he realized we were protesters and made a claim that some had threatened him. A few in the crowd labeled that racism, but group leaders were quick to stop that by finding alternative transport. About 200 protesters —young and old, students, workers and professionals — crammed into two charter buses and several small vans in preparation for the five-hour drive.
— Brent Ford
Thousands of low-wage workers flooded the streets here demanding $15 and a union. Workers walked out of their workplaces all over the city protesting during the morning commute at a McDonald’s restaurant and then at a massive afternoon rally at the University of Illinois Chicago before protesters marched and gathered outside another McDonald’s restaurant in the Loop.
“April 15 showed the world our growing strength as low-wage workers organizing to better our lives,” said Tommy Cavanaugh, a low-wage worker from Rockford, Ill., who traveled to the Chicago protests with two dozen of his fellow workers and supporters. “With each strike we gain more workers who understand that standing together is the only way we can live with dignity. The bosses have tried to stop us through ignoring us, intimidation and most recently attempting to buy us off with phony raises for a tiny section of workers. The unprecedented number of strikers and support from all sectors of the working class and oppressed showed without a doubt that the bosses’ tactics have failed to slow the rising tide of low-wage workers organizing and fighting back.” Cavanaugh is also an organizer with Rockford Fight Imperialism, Stand Together (FIST), which is helping to assist and organize low-wage workers. (facebook.com/RKFDFIST)
Raise Up MKE and Wisconsin Jobs Now, with major support from numerous labor-community organizations, held a series of actions. The day began with a 6 a.m. protest at a McDonald’s and then a rally took place at Red Arrow Park, the site where Dontre Hamilton, a 31-year-old African American man, was killed by Milwaukee police officer Christoper Manney on April 30, 2014. Dontre’s brother, Nate Hamilton, spoke in solidarity with the Fight For $15 workers and supporters. A protest by Wisconsin Jobs Now was held at Grand Avenue Mall in downtown Milwaukee, and SEIU custodians and other members joined a march down Wisconsin Avenue, the major street in downtown Milwaukee. The day concluded with a rally of hundreds of low-wage workers and their supporters demanding $15 and a union at the University of Wisconsin Milwaukee. (facebook.com/RaiseUpMKE)
Beginning with a march down East Washington Avenue, where workers at multiple fast food restaurants joined the growing march, protesters gathered at Library Mall at the University of Wisconsin Madison to demand $15 and a union. These actions were organized by Wisconsin Jobs Now, AFSCME, Industrial Workers of the World and the Workers’ Rights Center. At UW-Madison, the Fight For 15 members and supporters, which included teaching assistants and adjuncts, did outreach at Memorial Union. Like many campuses nationwide, UW Madison has a swamp of low-wage restaurants, campus offices and classrooms where students, staff, faculty and other community workers toil for below-poverty wages.
Luke Gangler works with the UW Madison Student Labor Action Coalition, which protests against UW’s licensing agreement with Jansport, a Wisconsin company based in Appleton. Gangler urged worker unity with all those fighting for a living wage and protesting union busting and related austerity measures. The UW administration refuses to cut ties to Jansport’s parent company over working conditions in Bangladesh and says jobs are provided in the Appleton factory. “But the Appleton workers don’t make a living wage; their fight is the same fight as the Bangladeshi workers thousands of miles away,” said Gangler. (madison.com)
Numerous workers here briefly walked off their jobs to demand $15 and a union.
— Workers World Milwaukee bureau
Bay Area, California
All the McDonald’s in Oakland and a number of others across the Bay Area were shut down simultaneously at 8 a.m. as part of the national day for $15 and a union. The Oakland workers and community activists then converged on the McDonald’s on Telegraph Avenue and 45th Street, packing it and massing a huge overflow crowd in the parking lot outside. Later about 1,000 low-wage workers and community members from all over the Bay Area rallied at the University of California Berkeley campus, then marched to downtown Berkeley, shutting down yet another McDonald’s.
— Terri Kay
Seattle’s new minimum wage law finally went into effect on April 1, and
40,000 workers at big companies got raises to $11 an hour The new law will raise the wages of 100,000 low-wage workers. Companies employing 500 or more workers will have to pay the $15 an hour minimum by Jan. 1, 2017.
While governmental groups like the city and the county boosted pay to $11, the rich University of Washington refused raises to student workers. After two militant protests by students and workers, UW caved and agreed to pay 2,600 student workers the $11an hour
On April 15, under the slogan “15 is just the beginning; inequality ends with us,” workers held marches and other actions in at least 12 Washington cities. With coordination from the Service Employees, Food & Commercial Workers, the Teamsters, and 15Now, 800 to 1,000 marched in Seattle. The demonstration of fast food and retail workers, child care and home care workers, drivers and adjunct professors, airport workers and more marched 2 miles through downtown.
The march went to Uber headquarters, the alternative taxi business and a high-priced, high-profit, poverty-wage company. Uber’s immigrant workers are organizing a drivers’ association supported by the rest of the labor movement. The march also encircled Macy’s downtown store, where one-third of the workers got raises on April 1. But UFCW told the crowd that Macy’s workers’ hours have been cut and they’ve suffered other attacks.
The march then went to Seattle University, where adjunct professors making poverty wages have been held back from gaining union recognition. The university, claiming a religious exemption, won’t allow a vote count for union recognition, which the teachers believe they will win.
After hundreds of workers crowded into the SU business school for an occupation, the march then moved to a large nearby intersection. Twenty-one workers, representing many low-wage occupations, sat down and refused to leave until they were arrested by the cops. They symbolized the determination to resist until $15 and a better world is won for all workers.
— Jim McMahan