The “Fight for 15” campaign has spread rapidly from its beginnings in New York City two years ago. Last Thursday’s civil disobedience strikes affected 150 cities throughout the U.S. – significantly, many of them were in the South, historically hostile to unions. As well as broadening their support, strikers faced jail as a way of showing their determination to achieve a $15 an hour minimum wage.
Obama referred to the movement at a speech on Labor Day in Milwaukee. He said: “There’s a national movement going on made up of fast food workers organizing to lift wages so they can provide for their families with pride and dignity. … If I were busting my butt in the service industry and wanted an honest day’s pay for an honest day’s work, I’d join a union.”
As well all the major cities in the North, protesters were arrested in St. Louis, Missouri; Little Rock, Arkansas; Durham, North Carolina; Phoenix, Arizona; New Orleans, Louisiana; Nashville, Tennessee; Atlanta, Georgia; Miami and Tampa, Florida; and Charleston, South Carolina. In Nashville, McDonald’s worker Jamar Black was at a protest outside of a Sonic restaurant. He told In These Times “We’ll do whatever it takes to get to $15. If we have to go to jail, we’re doing that.”
The Huffington Post reported that in Charleston around two dozen fast food workers blocked traffic at the entrance to a freeway, backing up traffic for miles. Police arrested 18 in what were deemed “non-custodial” arrests – but “the fact that it was happening at all in South Carolina took onlookers by surprise … Dave Crossley, a local who came out in support of the protest, marveled at the line of workers bottling up traffic for blocks on Spring Street, chanting for ‘$15 and a union.’ ‘This sort of thing doesn’t happen in Charleston,’ he said.”
Reports indicate that the police were much more careful in their treatment of protesters than in previous strikes, which reflects both public support for the movement and the condemnation of police over-reaction to the protests in Ferguson. For example, Durham police in union-unfriendly North Carolina “followed the city’s protest for upwards of three hours while making no arrests, even as workers sat in a series of increasingly busy intersections. Eventually, the protesters advanced to the corner of West Main Street and Great Jones Street, one of the busier intersections in downtown, where 23 workers wearing red armbands sat down in the middle of the street. The police blocked off traffic around the intersection but did not advance on the protesters for about an hour and a half.”
The LA Times reported that in New York City, “Hours after the morning protest in Manhattan, marchers gathered again on the busy corner of 8th Avenue and 56th Street, where several were swiftly arrested and taken away in a police van after they lay down on the pavement and blocked traffic. … Lunchtime diners at a nearby open-air bar watched the protest and arrests, which lasted no more than half an hour. ‘Good for them,’ one man in a business suit said who was weaving his way through protesters as they chanted and disrupted traffic. ‘Everyone deserves to make a living’.”
Ashona Osborne, who works at Wendy’s in Pittsburgh, told Democracy Now: “We volunteered that we were going to take a nonviolent civil disobedience and sit down, just to make the point to these CEOs and corporates that ‘We’re not playing.’ … This strike that we had, as opposed to our last strike, we had way more people walk off the job and way more people from the public and workers come and join us as we were striking. We started out with about 10 people at 5:00 in the morning. By the time they came about noon, we had over 200 people all striking together as one.”
There is a fusion between the fight for a living wage and other campaigns for social justice, such as the “Moral Mondays” movement in North Carolina and the struggle for immigrant workers’ rights. The larger movement includes activists from Ferguson, Missouri, who decided to travel to New York City on Thursday to join the protests there. Jeanina Jenkins, a McDonald’s employee in Ferguson, said she believes their fight against Michael Brown’s shooting will be on the minds of many striking fast food workers. “We’re fighting for the same thing, basically,” she said. Co-worker Carlos Robinson told the New York Times: “In Ferguson we needed to stand up for what’s right. Here we have to stand up for what’s right. It’s all about rights. … Ferguson gave us a boost because it helped us realize some people really don’t care about you. If you don’t care about yourself and take a stand for yourself you’ll always be at the bottom.”
The change in tactics to civil disobedience was combined with the addition of home healthcare workers to the campaign. The Service Employees International Union (SEIU) has been a major backer of the fast-food strikes; its president Mary Kay Henry said: “Homecare workers … decided to join with fast-food workers yesterday in building the broadest, most powerful movement possible … We looked at [Obama’s speech] at 5:45 yesterday morning in Oakland. And workers who hadn’t had a chance [to see it], because they were working on Labor Day, were incredibly thrilled that the president of the United States is saying that what they’re doing makes complete sense.” She added: “There’s an incredible intersection of the immigrant rights movement and the fast-food workers’ movement. I saw it in Oakland yesterday. Many of the workers were Latino and had immigrated from Central America and Mexico. We’ve seen it across this country as the city organizations get built in local coalition with the immigrant justice movement.”
The strikes are not directed at obtaining concessions from one particular company or store, but are aimed at changing the political climate so as to make it unacceptable for corporations earning billions of dollars to keep wages at poverty levels. This includes challenging the legal strategies used by corporations to avoid liability for labor conditions. The movement achieved an important success in this respect by winning a decision by the National Labor Relations Board that McDonald’s could be treated as a joint employer with its franchise holders in labor complaints, opening the way for major pressure on the corporation’s practices.
Most new jobs created in the U.S. today are low-waged, but workers in these jobs are becoming more militant and political in their fight against multi-billion dollar corporations. Washington Post correspondent Harold Meyerson pointed out that: “even though the campaign has yet to win a union contract for a single worker, it already has to be judged a signal success. By highlighting the abysmal incomes of millions of hardworking Americans, it has prodded governments to phase in minimum wage increases in a growing number of cities and states. … The fast-food workers’ campaign, then, may be viewed … as the second act of a broader workers’ movement kicked off by the Occupy Wall Street demonstrations of 2011. Occupy never developed a strategic focus that went beyond occupying, but it nonetheless focused the nation’s attention on the widening chasm separating the 1 percent from everybody else. The fast-food campaign … has staged enough high-profile actions, with a compelling economic and moral message, to win real gains for workers, whether those workers stand to ever become union members or not.”
The gains that have already been made have built workers’ confidence in their own ability to fight and their strength as a class. Alliances with community activists to build an inclusive movement are creating a new form of labor struggle, in the teeth of antagonistic courts and Republican-dominated state legislatures. Much greater conflicts are in store as the movement challenges the basis of corporate profits and their political and legal influence.
Ferguson McDonald’s worker Jeanina Jenkins said that Michael Brown’s shooting had made her think about the reasons why it had happened. “These corporations make billions of dollars each year,” she said, “and if it wasn’t for the workers they wouldn’t have a company to run. … I want to make a history that’s going to change not only us but change the world.”