The Fight for $15 Protests Aren’t Just About Higher Pay

Low-wage workers were out in force at marches and rallies across the country on Thursday, calling for both increased wages and union rights.
A Fight for $15 protest in Los Angeles on April 14. (Photo: Willy Blackmore)
Apr 14, 2016· 7 MIN READ
Willy Blackmore is TakePart’s Food editor.

As Grand Avenue begins to slope down the south end of Bunker Hill in Downtown Los Angeles, cultural institutions such as the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion and the newly opened Broad Museum give way to high-rise office buildings. Along the sidewalk, the clusters of schoolchildren sketching the glimmering blocks of Walt Disney Concert Hall and lines outside the museums are replaced with restaurants and coffee shops to serve the bankers, accountants, and other white-collar workers sitting in their offices above. Starbucks for breakfast; Subway for lunch. On most days, these blocks are awash in blazers and pantsuits.

But on Thursday morning, Grand Avenue played host to a different crowd. The street was flooded with workers who earn far less than those in the nearby Deloitte & Touche or Wells Fargo buildings: fast-food employees, home-care and childcare workers, laundry workers, janitors, and union members from an array of blue-collar industries marching in solidarity for the fight to earn a $15-an-hour minimum wage.

The protests have become markedly larger and more diverse since fast-food workers sparked the Fight for $15 movement with a one-day strike held in New York City in November 2012. Just 200 workers walked off the job that day; an organizer estimated that thousands attended Thursday’s protest. As other low-wage workers have joined the ranks, the notion of a $15 minimum wage has moved from the political fringe and into the mainstream. In 2014, Kshama Sawant, a member of the Seattle City Council and one of the few avowed socialists in the country to hold elected office, helped pass a $15 minimum wage in her city. Two years later, in the thick of an election year, Hillary Clinton has voiced her support for the Fight for $15 movement and a $12 federal minimum wage (pegged to inflation), and Bernie Sanders is campaigning on a $15 minimum wage for all Americans.

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The progress isn’t limited to campaign rhetoric. On Thursday, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed a bill that will bring a $15 minimum wage to New York City by the end of 2018, with other parts of the state gradually following. In California, the minimum wage, which was bumped to $10 at the beginning of 2015, will hit $15 in 2022 (by which time the record-high minimum will be worth $13 in 2016 dollars owing to inflation). But even with the gradual increases and the erosion of the real value of the wages, the narrative is that the Fight for $15 movement is not only winning but has already won.

(Photo: Willy Blackmore)

Yet workers in New York and California walked off the job again Thursday, taking part in what organizers have billed as the largest protest yet: tens of thousands of low-wage workers in 300 cities across the country, with other actions, including a blockage of the McDonald’s at Disneyland Paris, taking place in 60 countries around the world.

Why continue to protest in California and New York when wages are set to rise? Because the goal of the Fight for $15 isn’t to raise the minimum wage.

“That is actually beside this movement,” Taco Bell employee Rob Tejada told me at a 2013 protest in front of a Los Angeles McDonald’s when I asked about President Obama’s call to raise the federal minimum to $10.10. “Anyone who is willing to work very hard doesn’t deserve the minimum—no matter what the minimum is. They can raise it up to $9, $10, but things are going to go up in price too, so that kind of makes up for it—we’re still back at the same problem. So that’s not the answer. The answer is to pay the workers the fair wage.”

It’s printed right there on the protest banners and the green T-shirts worn by many workers at the L.A. march, the words written out in both Spanish and English: “Fight for $15 and a Union.”

“People are about more than their paycheck, and $15 is going to help, but it doesn’t solve all of the problems,” said Bridie C. Roberts, a Methodist pastor wearing a clerical collar and a silver hoop in her pierced nose, as she stood at the edge of the growing crowd of protesters on Grand Avenue on Thursday. Roberts is the program director of Clergy and Laity United for Economic Justice, which has supported Fight for $15 activities in Los Angeles for the past three years. “People need to know that they’re valued and that their labor is respected,” she said. “They deserve to be treated with dignity whether or not they’re working in a boardroom or they’re preparing the tasty fries that we all enjoy for lunch.”

Billed as a march, the Los Angeles event felt more like a block party–protest mash-up, complete with a Spanish-language band playing on the back of a flatbed truck—the kind of affair where you don’t just wave placards but do a bit of dancing too, as one young Latino couple did, neatly stacking their Bernie Sanders signs on the concrete before pressing their hands together and cha-cha-cha-ing to the beat.

Old-guard Chicano groups like the Los Angeles Brown Berets stood alongside transgender activists and thick-armed United Auto Workers members, their local 887 T-shirts covered in the ornate curled and filigreed lettering of old-school cholo graffiti and tattoos. Some pushed strollers carrying children, while other strollers propped up signs declaring, “Invest in quality child care,” and calling for a $15 wage for childcare workers. Another woman held a piece of cardboard with “Bernie Esta Con Nostoros” written in marker on one side, the English translation on the other: “Bernie Is With Us.” The only sign to mention Clinton compared her proposed $12 wage unfavorably with the movement’s gold standard. The crowd—black, brown, and white—was feeling the Bern.

One young transgender woman wearing a black dress and carrying a tote bag that said “respect pronouns” politely declined an interview, suggesting I instead speak with people of color at the event. Despite being a nonunion worker at Disneyland—and waving a placard that read, “Economic justice is essential for queer and trans liberation”—she believed their voices were most important.

(Photo: Willy Blackmore)

One such voice belongs to Juan Moran, a line cook at a Downtown Los Angeles dumpling house, and stories like his show just why workers’ concerns go beyond how much they are paid.

Moran, 34, first started cooking in restaurants when he was 20, working full-time and trying to put himself through school at East Los Angeles College. He wanted to become a Spanish teacher but only made it through a semester—he didn’t earn enough to make his tuition payments. The job that was only supposed to help him get by has now become a career, and a difficult one at that.

Pay has only been part of the problem. “At first I thought there were no rights for the employees,” Moran said in a telephone interview on Wednesday. “I was just following instructions from managers.” At one recent job, that meant not taking the rest breaks required by state law or being asked to go back on the clock before a state-mandated meal break was over. Only after a decade of working in kitchens did Moran learn what he was entitled to as a worker, and with the help of Restaurant Opportunities Center of Los Angeles, a nonprofit that advocates for food workers’ rights, he filed a wage-theft complaint against the restaurant. It took more than a year for the owner to even respond to the complaint, and the issue was settled out of court.

Falling on what would normally be the second-to-last day to file taxes (procrastinators have until April 18 this year), with many actions focused on McDonald’s, organizers are clearly aiming beyond the minimum wage—because low pay, they and even some Wall Street tycoons say, isn’t just hurting fast-food workers but the country as a whole, with many forced onto federal assistance programs to bolster their meager wages. Furthermore, organizers say that McDonald’s and other corporations do not pay a fair share of taxes.

According to a UC Berkeley study published in 2015, low-wage jobs cost taxpayers nearly $153 billion annually because of working families’ dependence on public safety-net programs. According to the analysis, half of public dollars spent on Medicaid, the Children’s Health Insurance Program, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, the Earned Income Tax Credit, and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program goes toward supporting working—not unemployed—families. That’s basically the entire federal social safety net.

McDonald’s alone costs taxpayers $1.2 billion annually because of workers enrolled in public assistance programs, according to a 2013 study from the National Employment Law Project.

Higher wages could help to reduce the burden on government programs, but the maximum annual earnings for a person working for $15 an hour—eight hours a day, five days a week, every week of the year—only amounts to $30,600, or about 20 percent above the federal poverty level for a family of four. In California, eligibility for CalFresh, the state’s food stamps program, is cut off when a household’s gross earnings exceed 200 percent of the poverty level. In other words, earning the gold standard wage of the Fight for $15 movement doesn’t mean you can get off public assistance. According to the Berkeley study, 10.3 million working families were enrolled in SNAP between 2009 and 2011, accounting for more than a third of total enrollment.

Coauthors Ken Jacobs, Ian Perry, and Jenifer MacGillvary wrote that increasing wages and expanding employer-provided benefits, such as health insurance, could cut Medicare costs and free up money for other programs. Similarly, raising wages could steer funding for Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (aka welfare) away from direct cash payments that supplement essential needs and toward childcare, job training, and other services.

“Now that the $15 wage is being adopted in a high-level way, I think we’re building momentum toward policies that address racial and gender justice, retirement security, criminal justice reform, and comprehensive immigration reform,” Kathy Hoang, the director of ROC-LA, wrote in an email to TakePart. “Ultimately we’re building power for workers so we can achieve a more equitable vision for America and the world.”

Following years of mounting pressure from workers and continuing public discussions about income inequality, McDonald’s has made some changes to benefit workers—changes it touted ahead of the latest round of protests.

“We proudly invest in the future of those who work in McDonald’s restaurants,” Lisa McComb, a spokesperson for McDonald’s, said in a statement emailed to TakePart. “In addition to raising the minimum wage for employees at our company-owned restaurants, we also offer employees access to Archways to Opportunity, a set of programs McDonald’s pays for which helps them earn a high school diploma and get needed tuition assistance so they can work toward earning a college degree.”

The program, which was started a year ago, has enrolled 5,000 workers involved in some sort of continuing education program—from finishing high school to taking the company’s own ESL course, English Under the Arches. According to a release published in April, more than 3,300 employees have received tuition assistance for college courses through Archways to Opportunity.

“McDonald’s,” as none other than Warren Buffet said in a press release, “is ensuring its workers have the tools to succeed throughout their careers and that in turn makes our entire economy stronger.”

It’s a marked change from the early days of the Fight for $15, when McDonald’s and others were more dismissive of workers’ complaints. In 2013, McDonald’s was criticized for encouraging employees who couldn’t make ends meet on their wages to enroll in public assistance programs. But the incremental advances from McDonald’s and policy makers alike aren’t going to appease the crowds that gathered in Downtown Los Angeles and across the country on Thursday.

“Those companies do not have to wait to do an incremental implementation of $15 an hour—they could do it now. They could do it now and put families on the path toward success, create futures for their children,” said Roberts. “They could do it without even blinking an eye, but they aren’t choosing to.”

As Moran said, the movement isn’t going to stop “until we get respect.”