Edgar Gonzalez, Los Angeles, Calif.
Photo: Mike Prysner
Omar Freckleton, New York City
Photo: Ben Becker
Photo: Jessie Farine
May 15 was a day of global action in 150 cities around the world to demand justice for low wage fast food workers. Liberation News was there in the streets with the fast food strikers.
New York City
President Obama and the Democratic Party leadership has backed a plan to raise the minimum wage to $10.10, but for Omar Freckleton, a 31-year-old McDonald's worker in Brooklyn, "$10.10 still isn't enough — $15 at least gives us a chance." Freckleton joined around 200 others for a morning rally and march in midtown Manhattan, which ended outside a local Domino's restaurant, another employer known for its poverty wages.
Dressed all in red t-shirts, they were joined by activists and members of a variety of other community and workers groups for the event— including New York Communities for Change, Make the Road-NY, and the Retail Action Project.
The rally was loud and even festive at times, dominated by drumming, dancing and chanting. Among the various chants for people's power and workers' rights, one imparted a class message to a popular song by hip hop artist Drake: "We started from the bottom, now we here!" Another went, "Get paid — don't get played!"
But the workers' seriousness was reflected in their short speeches: a Domino's worker took the microphone with a simple message, delivered in Spanish, "We have to keep fighting. We're going to win." A Wendy's employees tells the crowd, "All we need to do is tell the people we work with to not be afraid."
Fear is not part of the equation for those like Freckleton. He told Liberation, "They can try to retaliate, but I've been coming out here since this movement started. I'm a 31-year-old man still living with my parents. Getting just $8 per hour, I have to decide between buying a Metrocard, doing the laundry or buying something to eat. Now I'm not just fighting for myself. I'm fighting for the 15-year-olds and 16-year-olds who are just getting hired and don't know their rights yet."
A street cleaner in Herald Square, with 20 years on the job, stopped briefly to watch the event. He told Liberation, "This is a good thing they're doing. The new guys here only make $8/hour and you can't survive in this city with that. They're living with two families in their apartments just to pay the bills. They can't even buy the milk for their kids' cereal in the morning."
Seattle is at the center of the struggle for a $15 minimum wage. This gave special energy to the Strike Poverty action on May 15. Workers walked out of several fast food restaurants starting the evening of May 14 and into May 15, at the Capitol Hill IHOP, Ballard and Capitol Hill McDonald's and Rainier Ave Dominos.
In the morning of May 15, airport workers and their supporters protested at the offices of the Port of Seattle to demand that airport workers get $15. In November, a ballot initiative in neighboring SeaTac voted in a $15 minimum wage. However, a court has ruled that the voters did not have the authority to raise wages at the SeatTac airport, which is operated by the Port of Seattle. Liberation spoke with Lee Bolden, who works at the airport as a wheelchair agent. “We think it’s unfair that they are trying to block the $15 minimum wage for us, the cost of living in this city is very high, so to be able to take care of our families, this is what is needed.”
At 4 pm, fast food workers and supporters from labor and the community gathered at Westlake Park for a rally. The mood was festive as songs like Aretha Franklin’s Respect boomed over the loudspeakers and workers danced. After a few speakers including City Council member Kshama Sawant, who saluted fast food strikers in her hometown of Mumbai, India, protesters lined up and marched to the nearby McDonald's at Third and Pine. There marchers began to chant, “Walk out, we got your back!” The tension began to build, and then McDonald's workers Brittany Phelps walked out, with five-year-old daughter Emonie at her side. “We’re getting tired of being pushed around. We are getting tired of doing everything. We’re getting tired of staying late nights trying to make sure everything is cool. We’re tired of it and we’re getting ready for this change and the change is coming!” Emonie electrified the crowd by grabbing the microphone when her mother was finished speaking; she led the crowd in chanting “We’re fired up, we won’t take no more!”
The march then headed down Third and over to the Target on Union St. During the day, low-wage workers at this Target had contacted organizers and said they were ready to walk out with the fast food workers. Once again, marchers stood and chanted in front of the store, “Walk out, we got your back!” Again the tension built up and then a group of about eight workers, women and men, Black, white and Asian, marched out of the store, fists in the air. Hugging eachother as the crowd roared and screamed, they pulled on green protest t-shirts over their red target uniforms.
Target worker Nick said, “The problem of low wages is not just about fast food, it’s a problem all over this world and it’s a problem we all need to stand up for. We are tired of not knowing when we can pay the rent, we’re tired of not knowing if there’s going to be food in the cupboards. There’s no way a full-time worker deserves poverty wages.”
Target worker Rihana said, “Together as workers we do have power, and when we stand together across the globe, we can accomplish something like this, we can earn a livable wage. I want everyone to know that when we do this together, it can be done, we are doing it right now.”
Target worker Georgia had walked out in the morning: “We make money for this store and we deserve the wages we need to stay alive!”
Target worker Lesha James choked up as she explained her motivation: “I walked off of Target because I am tired of not being respected. I have a daughter, I can’t even afford to take care of my daughter. I don’t want to feel like a servant any more, I am a hard worker and you need to appreciate me.”
About 150 people, including faith leaders, unions, and UPMC workers came to show solidarity with the striking fast food workers for a 6:30 am rally in front of McDonald’s in North Side. Many commuters drove by honking their horns in support, including a number of USPS truck drivers from the nearby distribution facility and several trolley tour drivers. One worker told his story to the crowd about how he had to drop out of school to find a job and live in a tent while he worked two fast food jobs. A worker from the McDonald’s store worked off the job in her uniform and joined us. The crowd marched through the drive-thru shouting "Shut it down!" Later on the nearby Wendy’s was shut down by the entire workforce going on strike. Favorite chants included “Hold those burgers, hold those fries – we want wages supersized!”
Three hundred protestors and fast food workers gathered in Wilkinsburg, a once vibrant community now impoverished by bad jobs and unemployment, for an 11:30 am march. Fight Back Pittsburgh, a community union affiliated with the United Steelworkers, unfurled a banner reading “Strike for $15!” from the East Busway overpass as the crowd rallied in front of Popeye's and KFC. Protestors marched down what is called "Low Wage Row," a strip of low-paying fast food restaurants on the main drag of Wilkinsburg. Another McDonald’s drive-thru was shut down by workers marching through, encouraging the workers inside to join us to fight for a more livable wage as the bosses watched us helplessly. Half a dozen police cars, including a few K-9 units, gathered at the McDonald's and Wendy's to protect the bosses' private property from the very people who work there and make profits for the capitalists. The police threatened to arrest all the marchers if the crowd so much as stopped in front of Wendy's.
In Los Angeles, three separate pickets joined the Fight for 15 day of action, starting at 5 am at a McDonald's in South LA.
As the sun rose, a picket covered the sidewalk in front of McDonald's before it opened, as picketers chanted “Hold the burgers, hold the fries, make our wages supersized!” McDonald’s workers on strike wore their uniform hats with their “Fight for 15” t-shirts in a brave show of resistance to the McDonald's CEOs.
Edgar Gonzalez, a McDonald’s worker in Los Angeles, told Liberation News: “I struggle at my job, I don’t get paid what I deserve—sometimes I do the job of three people. I don’t think it’s fair that McDonald’s can make billions in profits and we can’t even get a raise of 10 cents. It’s been over a year and I haven’t gotten a raise. I just want to provide a future for my daughter who was just born. We’ve just got to keep fighting.”
The actions continued at 10 am with a larger picket at another McDonald's on Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd. Workers from various fast food restaurants were joined by union members and community organizations, and delegations entered the store to encourage workers to walk off the job.
The crowd grew to hundreds and marched between McDonald's and a nearby Burger King. Speaking in front of the McDonald’s, fast food workers spoke about continuing the fight for 15, joined by the Clean Carwash Campaign, national SEIU President Mary Kay, immigrant rights and social justice community organizers, and more.