Moses Brooks is 22 and has worked at a McDonald’s in Los Angeles for the past three years. He’s flipped burgers, manned the fryer, worked as a cashier, and held just about every position possible at the Crenshaw Boulevard restaurant.
When the California minimum wage shot up to $9 in July, so did his pay. But it stopped there. Recently, Brooks’ five-day-a-week schedule was slashed to three days a week. This unpredictable reduction of hours is commonplace for McDonald’s employees, according to workers, and can make paying for even basic expenses extremely difficult.
“The cost of living is constantly going up, but the wages are not,” he said.
Brooks is just one of the hordes of protesters who participated in Thursday’s countrywide strike demanding a $15 hourly wage and the right to unionize without retaliation. At 10 a.m. this morning, a massive crowd formed in downtown Los Angeles in front of the Central Public Library. Protesters banged on drums, blew whistles, and chanted such things as “Supersize our wages” and a call-and-response cry that went “Show me what democracy looks like! This is what democracy looks like.”
Employees in more than 100 cities walked out on their jobs at McDonald’s, Burger King, and other fast-food chains as part of a coordinated demonstration. Momentum for the “Fight for $15” movement began in November 2012, when 200 New York City fast-food workers walked off their jobs and began the $15 rallying cry.
One of the workers in the crowd was single mom Timiesha Taylor, who works and goes to school. A Burger King employee for six years, Taylor still gets paid $9 an hour—and she only received that bump when state minimum wage law required it.
“I’ve seen cuts...no raises,” she said.
Nathan Gilmore is 19 and has only worked at McDonald’s for a few months. He said he was unaware of the “Fight for $15” campaign when he was hired but that it makes him feel more optimistic about the years to come.
“It gives me hope...that I will have a secure, solid-paying job in the future,” he said.
Brooks said that when his shifts were cut, he couldn’t afford to pay his rent and was forced to move back in with his parents. He’s living there now, walking the approximately quarter mile to work and using his free time to hunt for other employment. If his pay were increased to a living wage, he could contribute to the household income and afford transportation so he could attend a quality school, he said.
“It’s absolutely needed for minimum wage workers to have their pay increased so they can afford things that are just necessary in life,” Brooks said. “Bills, household appliances...” Or even just a cell phone. He has been unable to pay his bill as his hours have dwindled.
In cities including Atlanta, Boston, and Chicago, workers like Brooks—restaurant cashiers, cooks, and janitors—were joined in protest by thousands of home care workers. In Los Angeles, quite a few were present at the downtown protest, wearing purple shirts representing the home care service union.
Organizers say that by widening the scope of their campaign to include other workforces, they will build support for the “Fight for $15” movement and secure livable wages for 4 million fast-food employees across the country. These employees have stood behind the mantra that they’ll do “whatever it takes” to secure pay increases, and on Thursday, in some cities, this meant civil disobedience.
Before noon, police arrested at least 19 people outside a McDonald’s in New York City, MSNBC reported. In Chicago, about two dozen protesters were arrested for blocking traffic and refusing to move, according to the Chicago Tribune. In Indianapolis, 10 fast-food workers were arrested for demonstrating, tweeted Fight for 15, one of the organizing groups. Across the country, more than 400 arrests have been made, according to Fight for 15.
Although this campaign is supported by fast-food workers across many global chains, the McDonald’s franchise has borne the brunt of bad publicity and employee discontent.
In May, 2,000 people showed up at the chain’s corporate headquarters in Illinois to protest the annual shareholder meeting. In March, class-action lawsuits were filed against the multibillion-dollar company in three states for illegal wage theft practices.
But McDonald’s maintains that its workers’ low wages aren’t its fault. The company says that 90 percent of its U.S. locations are independently owned and operated by franchisees who set their own wages according to state and federal laws.
“The topic of minimum wage goes well beyond McDonald’s—it affects our country’s entire workforce. McDonald’s and our independent franchisees support paying our valued employees fair wages aligned with a competitive marketplace,” reads a press release on the company’s website.
The National Restaurant Association has echoed these sentiments, saying that restaurants operate on a narrow profit margin, so a $15 minimum wage would force them to lay off workers.
Although the protesters have yet to win over their employers, their efforts have caught the eye of President Obama.
In a Labor Day speech earlier this week, Obama referenced the “Fight for $15” movement and expressed his solidarity with the workers’ push to unionize, saying, “America deserves a raise. Give America a raise.”
“You know what, if I were looking for a job that lets me build some security for my family, I’d join a union,” he continued. “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—I’d want a union looking out for me.”