Just after 6 AM on Wednesday morning, hundreds of protesters flooded onto one of Brooklyn's busier intersections outside a McDonald's, chanting and marching for $15-an-hour wages. It was the first of a daylong series of demonstrations against low wages that organizers were calling "the most widespread mobilization ever by US workers seeking higher pay"—a mass coordinated action that was expected to spread across more than 200 US cities and include some 60,000 demonstrators.
It was the largest effort yet for the campaign known as Fight for $15 , which began in 2012 with a fast-food employees strike in New York City and has since expanded into a broader economic justice protest movement, encompassing a range of low-wage workers, from Walmart cashiers to home health care aides and adjunct professors at universities. In the last three years, the crusade has picked up momentum globally, backed by millions of dollars from the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), one of America's largest labor unions.
Wednesday's action in Brooklyn was a cross-section of that movement, throwing together fast-food workers with building trade unionists, adjunct professors, and groups representing immigrant workers. In addition to calling for what they deem livable wages, the demonstrators protested against an array of workplace practices, such as cutting hours and erratic scheduling systems that require employees to remain "on call" for shifts.
As an NYPD helicopter hovered low over protesters blocking traffic, police deployed portable iron fences to stop the demonstration's advance down Flatbush Avenue toward the Manhattan Bridge. After blocking the busy artery for about 30 minutes, the procession moved over to a quieter street, heading toward Brooklyn's Borough Hall, while a smaller contingent stayed behind at the McDonald's, chanting, "What do we want? $15! When do we want it? Now!"
Among the protesters was Jumal Tarver, 36, who lives in Harlem and makes $8.75 an hour working in a McDonald's kitchen near Manhattan's Columbus Circle. Although he enjoys his job, Tarver told me he struggles to keep his head above water, relying on food stamps and subletting a room in a friend's apartment to get by on his low wages and unreliable hours.
Tarver would like to go back to school. He spent a few months taking business management classes at a private college in Lower Manhattan last year, but had to give up his studies because he could not afford the tuition. If his wages went up to $15 an hour, he said, he could finish his studies and move into his own place.
"I would be able to get an apartment," Tarver said, "so that when I want to spend time with my daughters they can come to my apartment instead of just my coming into my room."
Critics of Fight for $15 have claimed that the demonstrations are largely a PR stunt cooked up by labor unions to boost their declining membership numbers. In a statement Wednesday, McDonald's—the most high-profile target of the low-wage labor movement—said the protests do not truly represent its workers. "Historically—out of approx. 800,000 people who work in McDonald 's restaurants—there have only been about 10 to 15 actual McDonald's workers who have participated in these staged events," a McDonald's spokesperson told VICE in an email. "This is based on direct data from all of our restaurants and confirmed by our regional staff."
If the protest campaign is simply a press ploy, though, it appears to have been strikingly successful. Earlier this month, after enduring more than two years of protests over its wages, McDonald's pledged that it would raise pay for workers it directly employees to one dollar above each state's effective minimum wage. The vast majority of McDonald's workers, though, are employed by the franchises rather than the company, meaning they are not included in the company's pay raise. In February, Walmart, the nation's largest employer, announced that it would raise its minimum wage to $10 an hour, following a similar public shaming campaign over low wages.
Moreover, if the SEIU's endgame with Fight for $15 is to bolster its dues-paying union membership by expanding into low-wage sectors, the campaign could be an expensive gamble in terms of financial returns. On Wednesday, Reuters reported that the union has spent more than $20 million to organize low-wage workers, directing the money toward "worker organizations whose stated purpose, as cited in labor department filings or online job advertisements, was to work for better conditions in the fast-food and retail industries."
On the other side of the fight, the National Restaurant Association and the US Chamber of Commerce, which oppose raising the minimum wage, spent a combined $342.4 million to in Washington lobbying fees between 2012 and 2014, according to data cited by Reuters.
The payoff for labor would of course be huge if SEIU can actually succeed in turning protesters into union members. But unionization isn't easy. In order to be certified by the federal government, a majority of employees in a workplace need to vote in favor of forming a union, and elections often become messy and heated. At a giant employer like Walmart or McDonald's, the task would likely be almost impossible, particularly given how far those corporations are willing to go to avoid unionization.
But regardless of the outcome, the level of influence labor groups have asserted over the mainstream political dialogue marks a significant victory for private-sector unions, which have experienced steep declines in membership over the last two decades. The Fight for $15 movement has been credited with publicizing the problems facing low-wage workers, coinciding with a push from Democrats and progressive activists toward raising the minimum wage. In 2014, voters in several states approved ballot measures to increase the minimum wage, and cities like Chicago and Seattle have passed similar proposals at the local level.
Prominent Democrats have also gotten on board. Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren tweeted her support for Fight for $15 protesters Wednesday, as did New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, who has called for a change in state law that would let the city's minimum wage rise to $15 an hour by 2019. In Oakland, former US Labor Secretary Robert Reich led a walkout at a McDonald's, coaxing workers there to go on strike. The protests could also pressure newly-announced presidential candidate Hillary Clinton to articulate her stance on the minimum wage as she tries to shore up support with her party's progressive wing.
As support for the Fight for $15 has grown, the campaign has expanded into a broader social justice movement that seeks more robust economic opportunity and civil rights for low income and minority Americans. Most notably, labor groups have coordinated with Black Lives Matter activists, building on an alliance that formed in the wake of the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson last fall.
In some cases, protest groups originally organized to fight police brutality have began to focus also on low-wage restaurants and retailers. At a demonstration in New York, where protesters blocked lanes on the Brooklyn Bridge, participants carried signs that addressed both police brutality and fairness in pay.
Outside of the Flatbush Avenue McDonald's on Wednesday, the Fight for $15 message blended together with other progressive slogans. "This is what democracy looks like," Shantel Walker, a demonstrator who makes $9 an hour at Papa John's told me, repeating a popular line from Occupy Wall Street. "We're not living life at its fullest, we're tired of not making enough money to feed our families."
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