Lucas Jackson / Reuters

‘The money we deserve, or close down’: Low-pay workers rally for $15

Fight for $15 stages protests in 200 US cities and 40 countries in support of raising the minimum wage

NEW YORK — The sun had barely risen on Wednesday by the time the first protesters appeared in downtown Brooklyn, waving placards reading, “Fight for $15 on 4/15” and “Raise the minimum wage: $15 now.” As the crowd swelled, they were joined by a purple-clad dance team, a brass marching band and a circling crowd of journalists and police officers, all on hand to witness the start to what may be the largest day of action in the Fight for $15 campaign’s short history.

New York City was the birthplace of the fast-food workers’ campaign, which began in November 2012 with a core group of about 200 employees striking for a living wage and the right to unionize. The campaign has since amassed widespread support and coordinated protests and walkouts in hundreds of U.S. cities and dozens of other countries.

For Wednesday’s protests — which were planned in roughly 200 American cities, including New York, as well as in 40 other countries — the aim was to go even bigger and showcase Fight for $15’s increasingly broad-based membership. While the core of the campaign is still fast-food workers, the early protests in New York seemed to be more about low-wage labor in general.

In New York and around the country, Fast-food workers were joined in the streets by Walmart employees, construction workers, adjunct professors, yoga instructors, laundry workers and others. In Washington, D.C., fast food workers and labor organizers convened with members of the Congressional Progressive Caucus for a forum on lifting wage levels. At the same time, activists in the District of Columbia announced a new campaign for a $15 minimum wage in the city, following the examples of Seattle and San Francisco. A similar ballot measure will be proposed in Oregon.

A representative of the campaign said that roughly 2,000 protesters turned out for the morning rally in New York, with more expected to attend actions later in the day. A spokesman for the New York City Police Department said it did not yet have an estimate for how many people turned out.

The protests appear to have largely gone smoothly throughout the morning, although at least one arrest has been reported in Jackson, Mississippi, where a protester was reportedly arrested for trespassing on the property of a McDonald's where there were demonstrations occurring.

“It’s going to get bigger and bigger until they finally give us what we deserve or close down,” said Jorel Ware, a McDonald’s worker who has been involved in the Fight for $15 campaign since nearly the beginning. “The money we deserve, or close down. One or the other’s going to have to happen.”

Ware, 34, works at one of the McDonald’s restaurants affected by the company’s recent wage hike, which raised base pay for employees at McDonald’s-owned restaurants to $1 above local minimum wages. He described the hike as “clearly a PR stunt” aimed at deflecting the negative attention Fight for $15 has brought to the company’s labor practices.

“We want $15 and a union,” he said. “That dollar raise is nothing. It won’t pull us out of poverty, so whatever.”

In a statement provided to Al Jazeera two days before the April 15 protest, McDonald’s USA said it “respects the rights of our employees whether or not to join a union” and described its wage hike as “an important and meaningful first step as we continue to look at opportunities that will make a difference for employees.”

Workers in other industries who attended the protests said that the problems fast-food workers face reflect issues in the larger U.S. economy. Chris Brandt, 71, an adjunct poetry teacher at Fordham University, said “adjuncts are the fast-food workers of higher education.”

“We are underpaid. We can’t make a living teaching at one school, so we have to have other jobs,” he said. “I get paid $3,800 per course and can only teach four courses per year. That’s not enough.”

As the campaign has garnered more attention, new support has come from outside the labor movement as well. Racial justice organizations were early supporters of the campaign, and several of the attendees at the New York rally wore sweatshirts emblazoned with the slogans “Black lives matter” and “Hands up, don’t shoot” — references to the racial justice campaign that emerged out of Ferguson, Missouri, where a white police officer shot and killed an unarmed black teen in August 2014. Environmental groups, including the Sierra Club and 350.org, also indicated their support online.

Internationally, protest sites included Brazil, Ireland, and Nepal.

Brandt, who said he attended protests during the civil rights era and the Vietnam War, said, “It’s all the same fight.”

“This is part and parcel of environmental, anti-nuclear, anti-war,” he said. “All of that stuff is all the same fight. The economic part of it, police shootings — it’s all the same thing. And if we don’t have the kind of solidarity where we’re willing to join with each other, we’re not going to win this fight.”

Veundja Katuuo, a 29-year-old yoga instructor, said the low-wage economy “affects each and every one of us.”

“When you talk about civility and the foundation for families and providers for whom this is their career and their livelihood, how can you not feel?” she said. “How does that not affect you?”

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