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Hundreds of fast-food workers from McDonald’s, Wendy’s, Burger King and Taco Bell rallied in New York City Thursday to demand a $15 per hour wage and the ability to form unions.
Their demonstration, part of a nationwide strike coordinated in more than 60 U.S. cities, began in the early morning at a McDonald’s restaurant and ended by late afternoon at Manhattan’s Union Square, where those who participated chanted slogans including "Hey! Ho! Low wages have to go!"
Al Jazeera attended the rally to ask some of the low-wage workers why they had chosen to participate in one of the largest fast-food strikes in U.S. history.
Twenty-years-old and seven months pregnant, Katherine said she was proud to be a part of the strike. She works at McDonald's in the Bronx, a borough of New York City, earns $7.25 per hour and does not receive any health benefits.
"The health benefits I get is from my mom, she helps me out. I may be young and pregnant but I still work really hard."
Katherine was initially nervous about participating, explaining that she had never protested before. In the end, she was excited and surprised at the number of people who turned out. When asked if she was afraid of her manager finding out, she said that she wasn't.
"As of right now, I'm pretty sure she already knows. I'm not scared at all. Nobody is scared. That's why we're out here to show our self and let our voices be heard."
Ty-eisha, in her late 20s, works at Burger King and makes $7.25 per hour. She said that she would like a higher wage so that she could go back to school to study psychology and is hopeful that this movement will be a success.
"This is my second strike, and I'm excited, because it seems like it's getting bigger and bigger," she said. "We now have over 50 other cities striking with us today, and we actually have one store in Brooklyn that the workers got a dollar raise. I see change coming. We're growing, and we won't stop until we get what we want, what we deserve."
Justin and Rynwetta
Co-workers Justin McQueen and Rynwetta Bennett work at a Wendy's restaurant. They joined the movement to fight for fair wages and to be treated more fairly by their employer.
Rynwetta has been working in fast food for nearly seven years and feels there is no mobility in her job.
"There are no chances to move up," she said. "Raising the wage to $15 an hour will allow me to make what I deserve, because I know how to do every position. I have many skills, but I only get a 10 cent raise every six months."
She takes pride in her skills.
"I get a lot motivation from work. I can run sandwich orders by myself. I make great sandwiches, and when a lot of orders are on the screen, you have to figure out how to think and make them quickly."
Justin nodded in agreement with Rynwetta and added that "this isn't just about wages. It's also about voicing your opinions, how workers are treated. It's about respect."
Linda, 60, has worked at McDonald's for three years and makes $8 an hour. She came out to the first rally early Thursday morning at 6:30 a.m.
Most of her expenses go toward taking care of her son and her mother and paying off her student loans.
Linda tells us in addition to low wages, she doesn't have any health coverage.Once, she had to have surgery after she slipped and fell due to french-fry grease that was on the floor at work.
"I don't have insurance, there's no protection for me, and $8 is just not enough."
She brought her pay stubs to the hospital and they operated on her on a "sliding scale."
"They didn't care! That really pissed me off," she said.
She hopes the strikes will bring more exposure to everyday challenges for people living on low wages.
Manuela and Martin
Manuela Alvarado and Martin Heck work at Taco Bell. They said they wanted health benefits and the ability to take care of their families.
Manuela earns $9.05 per hour and has worked at Taco Bell for over 20 years. "We need a better life for our family, it’s hard," she said. "I don’t even make $200 a week."
Martin gets paid $9.27 per hour and came out after hearing about the event on the Internet and decided to sign up and join the movement. "We just want better benefits," he said. "It’s very expensive to live in Brooklyn, and we spend most of our money on food, clothes and medicine. We want to have a better life."
Shay, a mother with a toddler son, described her fellow strikers as her "family." When asked about her hopes for the future, she said it was to provide a better future for her child.
"I just want my son to enjoy some of the stuff that a child should enjoy other than seeing the four walls," she said. "So I have to try to survive on what I have. So far, it’s not working out."
When asked how managers and employers were reacting to the strikes she says, "some of them are fighting us but we're not going to give up."
Empowered by other historical protests in the past, she says "Martin Luther King didn't give up, Rosa Parks didn't give up, I can't give up."
Shay raises her arms in the air and yells passionately, "so all this, the $15 that I’m fighting for, is not for me -- it’s for the younger generations, for everyone."