Inside the Fast Food Workers’ Protest at the New Hampshire Republican Debate
While Republicans debated immigration and ISIS in New Hampshire, a group of protesters gathered outside to demonstrate that there were votes to be had if one of them would back a $15 minimum wage.
Just before Saturday's Republican debate started at Saint Anselm College in Manchester, New Hampshire, crowds began to swarm outside the venue.
Dozens of supporters showed up seemingly out of nowhere—on buses, in cars, or on foot—clutching their respective candidates' signs for a debate they probably weren't getting into. There was also the usual sideshow attractions you find at any campaign stop, like perpetual candidate Vermin Supreme, his signature boot atop his head, handing out pamphlets. Somewhere, someone was playing a saxophone in the freezing cold.
But by far, the biggest crowd outside of the debate was a group that none of the GOP candidates inside were likely thinking about: fast-food workers. And they were pissed.
Earlier that afternoon, hundreds of employees of Burger King, Wendy's, and other restaurants in the Manchester area went on strike for the first time, marching down the streets in an effort to demand a $15 minimum wage. The rally culminated inside a barricaded area outside of Saint Anselm College later that night, where, at that point, nearly a thousand protesters had joined the ranks. Several Republican supporters tried to chant over them, but were soon drowned out.
The fast-food workers are part of a nationwide movement known as "Fight for $15," which supports a $15 minimum wage, a proposal that's been the subject of all kinds of debate among activists, economists, and politicians in the last year. Seattle, San Francisco, and Los Angeles are among the towns that have adopted $15 minimum wage proposals across the country, and Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders supports the cause—as you'd expect, it's an issue that divides the parties. Liberals and leftists generally back a higher minimum wage, while the GOP tends not to support any minimum wage increase.
But the fast food workers outside Saint Anselm weren't there to back any politician in particular—their slogan on Saturday night, "Come Get My Vote," was designed to show the candidates that there were votes to be had if one of them would speak up for Fight for $15. (In New Hampshire, independents can cast ballots in either primary.)
"These voters do not support, and don't care about any party," Kendall Fells, the organizing director of the movement, told me on Saturday outside the debate. "It's just this one issue."
According to the group's press release, 45 percent of New Hampshire workers earn less than $15 an hour. Nationwide, the number is closer to 42 percent; African-Americans and Latinos make up a bigger chunk of that low-wage demographic.
Fells, who once worked at McDonald's and Taco Bell for two and a half years in Kansas City, said that besides the low pay, there were other ways fast food workers got abused. "I didn't know then that cleaning tables before my shift started was wage theft," he recalled. "And that putting butter on my burns so I could get back to work quick was illegal."
It's safe to say that the protesters' message did not make its way to the debate stage.
Saturday's GOP debate, just like the previous ones, focused on foreign policy, immigration, and various attacks the candidates had launched on one another on the trail. (The media has focused on Marco Rubio's embarrassingly repetition of a memorized speech, a moment that was about meta-narrative, not policy.) Donald Trump again promised vaguely to bring back jobs from China and Mexico, but he didn't seem to be concerned with what those jobs would pay. And when the moderators asked the candidates if they, like most Americans, supported higher taxes on millionaires, all of them said no, with Jeb Bush saying he'd "like to see more millionaires." So there wasn't much talk of economic populism, despite the efforts of FIght for 15.
Outside, Megan Jensen and Stephanie Pollack still hadn't made up their minds when it came to their preferred candidate in Tuesday's primary. "We're still doing our research," Pollack told me. "But we don't see Democratic or Republican. We just care about who supports this."
Jensen, 26, said she supports three children by working at KFC, where she's worked for over a year, while Pollack, 18, has spent four years at McDonald's and four months at Burger King. They both said $7.25—the minimum wage in New Hampshire—was simply not enough to survive in Manchester. "That's why I'm working two jobs," Pollack explained.
"This is something we can't not talk about it," Jensen continued. "And when we were marching, people were honking and hearing us out. They understand this."
When the debate began, the rally died down. Fells was optimistic, telling me "people were talking," even if the candidates inside ignored the group. But, to him, it didn't matter. "It's bigger than the debate," he explained. "For the voters in New Hampshire, economy is the biggest issue, and this is what's happening here, and in our country."
Follow John Surico on Twitter.