Seth Wenig / AP

Low-wage workers rally for union rights, higher pay in cities across US

Protests in cities nationwide to demand $15 an hour, as organizers hope to push 2016 presidential candidates on labor

Fast-food workers and others in the service industry launched coordinated protests Tuesday in cities across the United States, calling for union organizing rights and a minimum wage of $15 an hour, which they say they need to survive.

Demonstrators and organizers in the Fight for $15 movement said they hope the actions will get the attention of the presidential candidates and entrench the issue in the 2016 race, with a demonstration planned at the site of the GOP debate in Milwaukee on Tuesday night. Starting early in the day, rallies were held in cities including New York, Chicago, Denver and Houston.

At one rally in New York City, Mayor Bill de Blasio addressed the demonstrators and expressed his support. 

"This country can’t be what it’s supposed to be if people don’t make a decent wage," de Blasio said. The city has been a success story for the movement, with wages for fast-food workers set to rise to $15 an hour by 2018 following the decision of a state wage board earlier this year.

In Denver, demonstrators described the struggle of getting by on low pay.

“I am from a family of five children, my mom is chronically ill, so $15 would really help when we’re paying our bills and making sure we have food and water, everything working in order,” Aubrey Anderson told local CBS affiliate KCNC. “Union rights would really ensure that I get that without feeling threatened in the workplace.”

Fight For $15 supporters say the call for higher wages has galvanized low-income workers, potentially making them an important constituency in the upcoming election. Tonya Harrington, a 42-year-old home care worker from Durham, North Carolina, said she intends to vote for the first time ever in 2016 because of her participation in the $15 movement.

“People are really suffering. We’re working our tails off, and we’re not getting paid what our work is worth,” Harrington said. She said many low-wage workers have declined to vote in the past because they don’t think it will make a difference — a view she shared until recently.

The Fight For $15 protests “are making people more aware of what’s going on around them, in their neighborhood and their communities,” Harrington said.

McDonald's, one of the chains the protests targeted, issued a statement Tuesday saying it supports the right to peaceful demonstration. The company said that in July it had increased its wages by $1 over the local minimum wage for 90,000 workers at its company-owned locations, which are separate from franchises. It also said it had expanded educational assistance for 750,000 employees. 

The statement attempted to distance McDonald's from the protests, but seemed to acknowledge the possibility of further wage increases in the future. 

"Generally speaking, the topic of minimum wage goes well beyond McDonald's — it affects our country's entire workforce," the statement said. "McDonald's and our independent franchisees support paying our valued employees fair wages aligned with a competitive marketplace. We believe that any minimum wage increase should be implemented over time so that the impact on owners of small and medium-sized businesses — like the ones who own and operate the majority of our restaurants — is manageable."

Yannet Lathrop, a researcher at the pro-union National Employment Law Project (NELP), said low-wage workers in the United States are “starting to wake up politically.” She cited an October poll commissioned by NELP showing that 65 percent of low-wage workers would be more likely to vote in the coming presidential race if a candidate supported a $15 minimum wage and unionization.

“The way that low-wage workers have been engaging in the fight for $15 is really suggestive of a low-wage population that was disengaged prior to that fight,” Lathrop said.

The Fight For $15 campaign was launched in New York nearly three years ago with a day-long strike by roughly 200 fast-food workers. At the time, the protest was considered the largest strike in the history of the U.S. fast-food industry. But as the push for a $15 minimum wage and the right to unionize spread to other cities, the initial protest was dwarfed by a series of actions in hundreds of cities across the nation.

Workers rarely stayed off the job for more than a day. And many restaurants only had a small handful of employees who declined to work on the strike dates. But the protests, nonetheless, made global headlines and turned the $15 figure into a progressive rallying cry. Consequently, San FranciscoSeattle and Los Angeles have passed $15 minimum wage laws; New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo has said that he would like to pass a similar state law.

With the 2016 election nearing, labor groups are wondering how they can convert the energy around the $15 demand to further gains at the ballot box. Fight For $15’s main financial and organizational backer, the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), sees the campaign as a “potent political force” that could nudge elected officials into adopting other labor-friendly policies, said the union’s President Mary Kay Henry.

“The minimum wage initiatives across the country — happening through either legislative or ballot action — are examples of ways in which the government can raise wages, but we aren’t stopping there,” Henry said. She added that officials could also signal their support for the movement by passing measures supporting things like paid sick leave, or by using their influence to encourage more collective bargaining.

The three major candidates in the Democratic primary have endorsed minimum wage increases: Bernie Sanders and Martin O’Malley both support a $15 federal minimum wage, whereas frontrunner Hillary Clinton has endorsed $12 as the optimal wage floor. SEIU has yet to endorse a candidate, but most of the other large unions that have made their choice thus far have sided with Clinton.

Ashley Cathey, a 26-year-old employee at Sonic Drive-in and a Fight For $15 leader in Memphis, Tennessee, said the movement would not affiliate itself with any particular leader or party. She said that the latest action is still solely about lifting wages and seeking union recognition — but that candidates should be aware that workers like her tend to vote with those issues in mind.

“We’re not going to vote for anyone that’s not for us,” Cathey said. “If you're not for us, we’re not for you."

With Reuters. Wilson Dizard contributed to this report.

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