Thousands across U.S. demand ‘$15 and a union’

Workers held a National Day of Disruption for $15 and a Union across the United States on Nov. 29, marking the fourth anniversary of the continuing Fight for $15 movement. The most exploited and lowest-paid workers launched this battle in 2012 when some 200 workers boldly walked out at several fast food restaurants in New York City.

The movement has gained momentum ever since, as millions of workers struggle to survive on a federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour and on low wages in almost every sector of the workforce. Fight for $15 and a Union now involves workers far outside the fast food industry, including health care, child care and home care workers, airport baggage handlers, other airport workers, Uber drivers, university adjuncts, education workers, bank tellers and numerous others. Many are workers who used to have a decent job, but who are now getting lower wages, reduced benefits, fewer hours or have no job at all.

The Service Employees Union, representing many low-wage workers, has backed the movement and poured resources into the national campaign. SEIU members are seen at most demonstrations, along with members of many other unions. Fight for $15 workers have had strong connections that overlap with Black Lives Matter and immigrant rights organizations. Locally and nationally FF15 has broad support from community groups, clergy and faith-based organizations, progressive activists and a few politicians.

A Fight for $15 press release states what the struggle has won: “All told, the Fight for $15 has led to wage hikes for 22 million underpaid working families, including more than 10 million who are on their way to $15/hour, by convincing everyone from voters to politicians to corporations to raise pay. The movement was credited as one of the reasons median income jumped last year by the highest percentage since the 1960s.”

This workers’ battle is likely to become much fiercer when the anti-worker, anti-poor policies of the Trump administration, which are surely coming, take effect.

From sun up to sundown

The FF15 demonstrations began Nov. 29 before the sun came up, starting in the East and moving westward as fast food outlets and other workplaces began opening for the day. Organizers say walkouts and protests occurred in over 340 cities. Disruptions and protests, including strikes, took place at 20 major airports, including Chicago O’Hare and Boston Logan international airports, with hundreds of workers being arrested throughout the day. These mass arrests included 100 people in Kansas City, Mo., 40 in Los Angeles, more than 50 in Durham, N.C., and 34 people in Cambridge, Mass.

Following are reports from several cities where Workers World writers and activists took part.

In Philadelphia, more than 100 workers and supporters came out in driving rain to demonstrate. Participants included members of the United Home Care Workers of Pennsylvania, Fight for 15 Pennsylvania, Working Educators Caucus of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, National Association of Letter Carriers and Coalition of Labor Union Women. Low-wage workers, other union members and supporters joined in. They marched and chanted from a McDonald’s restaurant in North Philly to Thomas Paine Plaza across from City Hall.

After several workers and organizers spoke about their struggle, the crowd walked to a nearby McDonald’s store. They carried placards with slogans and demands like “We won’t back down” and “Stop structural racism and police killings of Black people.”

Police blocked off the street in front of the store and eventually arrested 13 activists for “refusing to disperse.”

Super-exploited workers speak out

In Rockville, Md., the seat of Montgomery County and part of the Baltimore-Washington, D.C., metropolitan area, political activists and religious people joined unionists to rededicate themselves to the fight for $15 and a union. They gathered outside the Montgomery County Council offices despite rain and fog.

Unions with members present were UFCW locals 1994 and 400 and SEIU locals 500 and BJ32. Carlos Jimenez, the new president of the D.C. Metro AFL-CIO Council, spoke briefly.

The most poignant remarks were made by several Latinx and super-exploited workers organizing on their jobs. A young Safeway grocery clerk in Local 400 described how poor people shop for food. At the checkout she sees the way they have to put things aside or back on the shelf and the pain on their faces as they see the price has gone up on what they used to be able to buy.

A Latina brought the crowd to tears and to raise angry fists. Her landlord raised her rent $100 a month. She and her spouse don’t believe they can make the rent increase, despite working three jobs. Eight dollars an hour is the “best” of their jobs. Now even the small comforts and joys in their life have to go, like the birthday party for their third-grader which they had to cancel.

Marchers order ‘Number 15 combo’

Low-wage workers in the metro Detroit area staged several militant actions. Before sunrise, an estimated 1,000 workers gathered in front of a fast food restaurant on the city’s west side, blocking a major street and sustaining 39 arrests.

Around noon, in an action organized by SEIU Local 1, more than 300 workers picketed at Detroit Metropolitan Airport in support of low-wage airport workers, demanding $15 hour.

Later in the day, more than 600 workers gathered at another fast food eatery. They marched past the drive-through window, ordering the “Number 15 combo” as they shouted for $15 an hour.

Pastor W.J. Rideout III, spokesperson for D15 as the local Fight for $15 affiliate is known, promised more actions in the coming year. He summed up: “The minimum wage is not enough. People can’t survive off of it. They can’t afford to pay their phone bills, their rent, their lights, their gas. That’s bad that they need three or four jobs in order to survive.”

‘Justice can’t wait!’

San Diego showed powerful community solidarity on Nov. 29. More than 1,000 people rallied downtown outside the Federal Building and then marched through the streets of the Gaslamp Quarter, a tourist district. The message was “Justice can’t wait! We won’t back down!”

Many people, representing a variety of organizations, spoke at the beginning rally. “An injury to one is an injury to us all” was a major theme. Speakers noted, “If one of us is homeless, it is an injustice to all. If one person is killed by police, it’s an injustice to us all.” Many issues were raised in this manner.

Indigenous people brought participants up to date on the thousands resisting at Standing Rock in North Dakota. There was a die-in where people lay on the ground while Chris Wilson from Alliance San Diego recited words from Maya Angelou’s poem, “Still I Rise.” It was a profound, dramatic expression of how human lives matter little in a society that places profits over people.

As the marchers surged through the streets, mini-rallies were conducted at several major intersections, halting traffic and alerting hundreds of bystanders to the marchers’ concerns. Drummers, led by Ground Zero Players and Indigenous drum circles, drew more people into the streets.

The march concluded in the middle of Park Boulevard, with San Diego City College on one curb and a McDonald’s restaurant on the other. The huge throng was slow in dispersing, with spontaneous speakouts addressing political questions and plans for future actions.

The National Action Network, Fight for 15, Black Lives Matter, the Alfred Olango family, Alliance San Diego, San Diego 350, the San Diego Light Brigade, Workers World Party, the Committee Against Police Brutality, Unión del Barrio, UHURU, several labor unions and many churches were some of the organizations and groups represented. People Over Profits was one of the sponsoring groups.

Joe Piette, Kermit Leibensperger (a steward in Food and Commercial Workers Local 1994 in Maryland), Mike Shane and Gloria Verdieu contributed to this article.

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