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Workers at Nationwide 'Fight for $15' Rallies Demand Higher Minimum Wages

Fast food, home healthcare, and construction workers rally for higher wages and unions across the country today.
April 15, 2015, 9:25pm
Photo by Colleen Curry/VICE News

Thousands of workers from the fast food, construction, and home healthcare industries joined protests around the country today as part of a national movement calling for an increase in the minimum wage, the ability to unionize, and greater economic and social justice.

The campaign, known as Fight for $15, used April 15 as a rallying day and held protests outside of McDonald's restaurants and other fast food establishments in more than 200 locations across the country, according to organizers.

"Income inequality is out of control in this city and in this country," Dave Holmes, spokesman for United Healthcare Workers East, one of the unions rallying in New York City today, told VICE News. "Since the recession, wealth has primarily gone to a tiny group at the top, and wages are stagnant. We need to make sure there is shared prosperity and opportunities for all people."

The rallies began outside a McDonald's in Brooklyn at dawn and spread throughout New York and the country, united by a coordinated social media campaign using the hashtag #Fightfor15, which showed photos from rallies at McDonalds in Wisconsin, Missouri, San Francisco, Philadelphia, and Chicago. Rallies were also held in Finland and Ireland calling for better wages from fast food chains with the coinciding hashtag #FastFoodGlobal.

At around 5:30pm, thousands of members of New York's carpenters, plumbers, and construction workers unions marched up Broadway to join the fast food, airport, and home healthcare workers at the rally, lining up on Central Park West in front of multimillion dollar condo buildings and the Trump Hotel holding signs and noisemakers and chanting about raising the minimum wage.

Union leaders and supporters alternated speeches with musical acts on a stage set up directly in front of the hotel, prompting one speaker to claim "the right to take care of our families just like the Trumps."

The protesters then halted Midtown Manhattan's evening commute as they marched down Broadway to Times Square accompanied by marching bands and dancers.

Related: Fast Food Workers Fight for a Raise, a Union, and Dignity at First National Convention

Fight for $15 rally shuts down a New York McDonald's.

Market St. Bridge — HillaryLinardopoulos (@MrsL132)April 15, 2015

Footage captures demonstrators chanting, "I believe that we will win," in front of a McDonald's Restaurant n Kansas City.

In New York, the Fight for $15 protests overlapped with another high-profile issue in the city, the Black Lives Matter campaign. Protestors at a McDonald's on the Upper West Side wore sweatshirts with the phrases "Fight for 15" and "I can't breathe" — the latter a reference to the choking death of Eric Garner at the hands of New York police last year.

"The momentum of Fight for $15 is growing stronger and building the foundation for the next American middle class," Mary Kay Henry, president of the Service Employees International Union, said in a statement. "It's too hard for working families to make ends meet. That's why adjunct professors, home care, retail, and childcare workers and airport staff have joined this fight for a fair shot at a decent life."

"This fight will not stop until service jobs are good paying jobs in an economy and democracy that works for all families," she said.

Organizers said they expected their largest turnout to occur Wednesday night at a rally in New York's Central Park, where they expected 15,000 people to converge.

Kendall Fells, national director of the Fight for 15 movement, said that the inclusion of such a broad array of low-wage workers and the overlap with the "I Can't Breathe" campaign emphasizes how pressing all these issues are.

"The connection to 'I can't breathe' is that the same workers who need better wages are the ones who get harassed on the way to work, harassed on the way home from work, and harassed at work," Fells told VICE News at the Central Park rally. "These workers are not fighting just for the minimum wage."

Wells called today's multinational protests the largest-ever mobilization of low-wage workers.

Jorel Ware, a McDonald's worker from New York, called the day's protests "epic."

"We're here because we want to be in poverty no more," Ware said. "We've worked hard to make their dreams come true to become millionaires and now we want them to make our dreams come true by helping to pull us out of poverty."

Ware said there was a parallel with the "I Can't Breathe" movement since both are seeking equality and respect.

Related: Birth of a union: Nationwide fast food workers convention is underway.

Beth Schaffer told VICE News she flew in from Charleston to attend the rally because she can't pay her bills despite working at both McDonald's and Hardees. "We all work hard and deserve $15 and a union," she said.

Around 5pm, the carpenters, construction, and plumbers unions marched up Broadway past Lincoln Center and the tony sidewalk cafés Bar Boulud and Cafe Fiorello, receiving cheers and smiles from bystanders.

"Block up the whole city till they give you more money!" one bystander yelled.

Airport workers were another group that turned out in significant numbers. Walbert Santiago, a baggage handler at LaGuardia, said he makes $10 an hour at the airport and can't afford to have his own home in New York for him and his six children. He and his family live with his parents in Queens, he said.

"It'll help me go to work, to feed my kids, to spend time with my kids, to get health benefits," he said of the Fight for 15 campaign.

The campaign for a higher minimum wage for fast food workers has been underway in New York City for nearly three years, led by the group Fast Food Forward and the Service Employees International Union, which is trying to unionize fast-food employees. It has broadened during that time period to include other service workers and to coalesce around the goal of $15 an hour.

The rallies in New York City come just one day after a city administrator, Comptroller Scott Stringer, released a report claiming that a $15 minimum wage in New York City by 2019 would boost city wages by $10 billion a year and benefit nearly 1.5 million workers.

"Raising the minimum wage is one of the single most effective tools we have to attack income inequality in our city, and there is no reason to delay an increase of up to $15 per-hour, "Stringer said in a statement released with the report, pointing out that New York has the highest cost of living in the nation. The report may signal Mayor Bill de Blasio's intent to raise the city's minimum wage.

"The rent goes up, the fare goes up, the food costs go up, and the pay stays the same," Rosemarie Rumbley, a home healthcare worker at the rally near Central Park in New York, told VICE News. Rumbley said she works two to three jobs at a time, often working 11-hour days. "My rent is $1,078 a month, on $10 an hour, how the hell do you expect me to make that work? But I do."

Bates and Rumbley said that today's rallies were important because they included may types of service workers who are crucial to the economy.

Pressure for a wage increase on the fast food industry has been building after major corporations in the retail sector announced wage hikes for their employees last month. Walmart announced in March that it would raise its minimum wage to $10 for part-time workers and $13 for full-time workers, and was quickly followed by TJ Maxx. McDonalds said earlier this month it will raise its wages to $1 above the local minimum wage.

The federal minimum wage is currently $7.25. New York City's minimum wage is slightly higher, at $8.75, but many activists hope to see the city follow in Seattle's footsteps, raising the minimum to $15 an hour.

Seattle's law was quickly met with legal opposition by the restaurant industry, with several legal challenges being filed in court. The wrangling represents the industry's historic resistance to raising wages for employees, according to one labor expert.

"They fight, fight, fight up until the bill gets passed, and then they look for loopholes so they don't have to comply with the law," Saru Jayaraman, the director of the Food Labor Research Center at UC Berkeley, told VICE News earlier this month. "They just believe money and power can change the law."

Related: McDonald's accused of 'wage theft' by thousands of employees in lawsuits

_Follow Colleen Curry on Twitter: _@CurryColleen