The Fight for $15 campaign to win higher pay and a union for fast-food workers is expanding to represent a variety of low-wage workers and become more of a social justice movement.
In New York City on April 15, more than 100 chanting protesters gathered outside a McDonald’s around noon, prompting the store to lock its doors to prevent the crowd from streaming in.
Demonstrators laid on the sidewalk outside to stage a “die-in,” which became popular during the “Black Lives Matter” protests after recent police shootings of black men. Several wore sweatshirts that said “I Can’t Breathe,” a nod to the last words of a black man in New York City who died after he was put in a police chokehold.
Timothy Roach, a 21-year-old Wendy’s worker from Milwaukee, said the police brutality black men face is linked to the lack of economic opportunity they’re given. He said the protests were necessary to send a message to companies.
“If they don’t see that it matters to us, then it won’t matter to them,” Roach said.
Organizers said demonstrations were planned for more than 230 U.S. cities and college campuses, as well as dozens of cities overseas. Among those who joined the latest day of protests were airport workers, Walmart workers and adjunct professors.
The campaign began in late 2012 and is being spearheaded by the Service Employees International Union, which represents low-wage workers in areas like home care, child care and building cleaning services. Mary Kay Henry, the SEIU’s president, said the push has already helped prompt local governments to consider higher minimum wages, nudged companies to announce pay hikes and made it easier for SEIU members to win better contracts. Those results are inspiring other groups of workers, she said.
“It has defied a sense of hopelessness,” she said.
In Jackson, Mississippi, around 30 people protested in a McDonald’s before being kicked out, with one of the demonstrators being arrested for trespassing. Protesters also gathered outside McDonald’s restaurants in cities including Denver, Los Angeles and Albany, New York.
Even if fast-food workers and others never become union members, winning higher pay for them would benefit the SEIU by helping lift pay for its members, said Susan Schurman, dean of Rutgers School of Management and Labor Relations.
“By raising the wage floor, it really benefits everyone,” she said.
Ann Hodges, a professor of labor employment law at the University of Richmond, said engaging different types of workers also broadens the appeal of the movement by increasing the chances people know someone who’s affected.
And the push to make Fight for $15 more of a social justice movement makes those who might have negative perceptions about unions more likely to join, she said.
“It becomes easier to organize workers if they view it as something positive and socially desirable,” Hodges said.
In the meantime, McDonald’s said this month it would raise its starting salary to $1 above the local minimum wage, and give workers the ability to accrue paid time off. It marked the company’s first national pay policy, and indicates McDonald’s wants to take control of its image as an employer. But the move only applies to workers at company-owned stores, which account for about 10 percent of more than 14,300 locations.
McDonald’s, Burger King and Wendy’s say they don’t control the employment decisions at franchised restaurants. The SEIU is working to upend that position and hold McDonald’s responsible for labor conditions at franchised restaurants in multiple ways, including lawsuits.
In a statement, McDonald’s said it respects the right to “peacefully protest.” In the past, it said only about 10 to 15 McDonald’s workers out of about 800,000 in the U.S. have participated.
In a recent column in The Chicago Tribune, McDonald’s Corp. CEO Steve Easterbrook described the company’s pay hike and other perks as “an initial step,” and said he wants to transform McDonald’s into a “modern, progressive burger company.”
But that transformation will have to take place as labor organizers continue pressuring employers over wages. Ahead of the protests this week, a study funded by the SEIU found working families rely on $153 billion in public assistance a year as a result of their low wages.