Brian Snyder / Reuters

Workers hit the streets across US in growing minimum wage fight

Workers and supporters stage strikes, walkouts, demonstrations at fast-food restaurants, airports, gas stations

Fast-food workers and other low-wage employees in nearly 200 cities across the country took part in a strike and protests Thursday, demanding a base wage of $15 per hour and the right to form unions in the latest in a series of day-long labor actions coordinated through a nationwide coalition of workers’ groups.

The protests in cities including New York City, Chicago and Philadelphia — organized under an umbrella organization called Fight for 15 — are believed to be the most expansive of such demonstrations to date, increasing to about 190 cities from 150 in a similar event in September. No arrests have so far been reported, according to Reuters. 

Strikes and walkouts at fast-food restaurants were staged by workers at McDonald's, Burger King and Wendy's locations as well as at major airports including New York City's John F. Kennedy International Airport.  Organizers said gas station employees and home care workers were also joining.

The actions are backed by unions including the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), are part of a push to increase the minimum wage from $7.25, where it has held since 2009. 

In Philadelphia on Thursday, about a hundred protesters — including a mix of fast food workers, airport attendants who make less than minimum wage, and steel workers — walked down Broad Street through downtown, following a spirited group of marching band drummers.

"All I want for Christmas is $15 and a union!" the demonstrators chanted outside the Arch Street Methodist Church, where local organizer groups including Fight for Philly and others started the rally for workers who said the wages they earn aren't enough to make ends meet or provide for their families. They then marched south through the courtyard of Philadelphia's iconic City Hall and turned right onto Walnut St., home to many of the city's high-end retail stores. 

Shymara Jones, 21, said she has to work two jobs, one at the restaurant Popeyes and the other at clothing retailer Forever 21, to scrape by in South Philadelphia. She said she barely has time to see he 2-year-old son. 

"We deserve $15 an hour and benefits," Jones said, explaining that Popeyes clerks and cooks sometimes have to fill in as managers without a raise in pay. She makes $7.60 an hour at Popeyes, juggling her job at Forever 21, where she makes $8.75.  "These companies can easily afford to pay us, but we need to make them," she told the crowd. 

Onetha McKnight said she makes even less helping disabled and elderly travelers at Philadelphia International Airport, pushing wheelchairs. Her hourly wage is $5.75, made lower since some passengers tip. She said they only do sometimes.

"I get a lot of 'thank yous' and 'I don't know what I would do without this service,'" McKnight, a 50-year-old mother has been working the same job for 10 years, told Al Jazeera.

Raphael Curtis, 24, was scheduled to work today at a South Philadelphia McDonald's but walked off to protest. Fight for Philly presented a "strike notice" to his employer allowing him to attend the rally without fear of being fired or disciplined for missing work.

"My spirit feels good. We're giving them something to see," Curtis said. 

The march ended without arrest or even the slightest scuffle with police, mounted on bikes following the protesters.

Meanwhile in Chicago, about 200 people marched downtown starting near the Rock 'N' Roll McDonald's, the largest in the city, chanting "We can't survive on $8.25" and "Get up, get down, Chicago is a union town."

Behind a thick, colorful scarf Halle Smith, 20, was among about 50 demonstrators in frigid pre-dawn temperatures outside a Milwaukee Taco Bell.

"I shouldn't have to have two jobs just to survive," Smith said, adding that she has made the minimum wage for about three years and works 60 hours a week at two jobs, a Sonic restaurant and a group home. "I have to choose what bills to pay and what not to pay."

In the Boston area, scores of fast-food workers and their supporters filled a McDonald’s and a Dunkin Donuts in working-class Chelsea, Massachusetts, early Thursday. Three Dunkin Donuts workers walked out from behind the counter and left the restaurant to join the demonstrators.

Melinda Robinson of Kansas City, Missouri, and her 5-year-old daughter, Mercy, marched Thursday with about 100 people in downtown Kansas City, Kansas, seeking a $15 wage and union.

"We need a living wage to be able to support our families. They don't think we deserve it," said Robinson, who has six children and makes $9 per hour working at a Subway.

Opponents said the protests are tainted because they involved major labor organizations. Fast-food chains say their locations are largely owned by independent operators who are responsible for pay rates of employees.

The International Franchise Association (IFA), an industry group, said in a statement the protests were "a blatant pretext to unionize employees at thousands of independently-owned local franchise businesses in order to grow the coffers of union leadership."

“These SEIU-organized protests are yet another example of unions attempting to generate headlines to grow union membership on the backs of hard-working small business owners and their employees,” IFA President and CEO Steve Caldeira said in a statement.  

"Planned protests in cities like San Francisco, Seattle and Chicago where the wage has already been raised show the true motivations are not about raising the wage, but unionizing workers to fill the dwindling coffers of union leaders," IFA's senior vice president of media relations and public affairs Matt Haller told Al Jazeera.

He said that IFA opposes a $15 minimum wage because "there is no doubt it is going to result in higher prices for consumers and less jobs for people who it need it the most."

The National Restaurant Association echoed those sentiments and said the consequences of hiking the minimum wage to $15 would be detrimental to young people. 

"The implication of a $15 minimum wage for what are largely entry-level jobs in the industry — most often for people who are just getting a start or have limited work experience or skills — is that there would be far fewer of those jobs available," the group said in a statement. 

However, advocates of higher hourly pay say full-time workers are kept below the poverty threshold for a family of four at the current wage.

President Barack Obama mentioned the fast-food workers’ campaign this year at a Labor Day appearance in Milwaukee.

"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," Obama said, as he pushed Congress to raise the minimum wage.

Al Jazeera and wire services. Wilson Dizard, Ned Resnikoff & Philip J. Victor contributed to this report.

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