Three years ago, when 200 fast food workers in New York City walked out from places like McDonald’s and Taco Bell to protest low wages, it sparked a much bigger movement. This year, on April 15, around 60,000 low wage workers–from drugstore cashiers to daycare employees–joined in new demonstrations in 200 cities, the biggest protest of its kind in U.S. history.
The Fight for $15 protests are calling for a minimum wage of $15, a little more than twice the current federal minimum wage. The timing was right for large-scale mobilization, says Kendall Fells, the national organizing director for Fight for $15.
“Low wage jobs are the fastest growing jobs in the U.S.,” he says. “And when you look specifically at fast food, the demographics of employees have changed in the last 10 or 15 years. There was a day when fast food workers were teenage kids. Now the average fast food worker is 28 years old. These are adults who have children and are trying to pay rent and utilities–all off $7.25 or whatever the local minimum wage is in their respective city.”
When Fells, who works for SEIU, first came to New York to organize workers in 2012, a community group had been trying to start a conversation about affordable housing. But they quickly realized the issue was much more basic. “Workers were all basically saying the same thing–they couldn’t talk about affordable housing because they were making $7.25 and they were couchsurfing and living in homeless shelters,” he says. Wages were the real problem.
As workers from major fast food chains across the city met, they realized they faced the same challenges, and quickly inspired other low-wage workers from different industries to join. “I think people realized that it wasn’t just them having issues at their store,” Fells says. “But that it was a broader issue which was workers as a whole were being disrespected and not being paid enough.”
The movement is making progress, as cities like Seattle, San Francisco, LA and Chicago have all recently raised the minimum wage. Companies like McDonald’s and Walmart have also reluctantly raised wages.
“Both been forced by striking employees to give raises that they did not want to give,” says Fells. “Both of those raises were meager, they’re pitiful, but the point is, these workers won it–McDonald’s didn’t wake up one day and say ‘Hey, I want to give 10% of our workers $1 raise.’ They did it because it was a PR stunt that blew up in their face. They did it the day after low wage workers announced the largest low wage mobilization in history.”
As the movement sweeps up a bigger variety of low-wage workers, from adjunct professors to airport employees, Fells believes the goal of $15 an hour is well in sight. “I’m positive about it,” he says. “I’m sure. All of the signs are there … even Hillary Clinton tweeted about fast food workers on April 15.”
If wages don’t rise, we all pick up the tab: A new study from the UC Berkeley Labor Center found that taxpayers spend $153 billion in public assistance programs for low-wage workers who can’t make ends meet.