'Fight For $15' workers create recipe for change at convention

About 1,300 low-wage workers gathered in Detroit to celebrate minimum-wage hikes

DETROIT — Some 1,300 low-wage fast-food workers came from around the country to Detroit's Cobo Center on Saturday for the second “Fight for $15" convention. There was a victorious buzz in the air, though most of the line cooks and cashiers are new to the labor movement.

In the main hall, a sea of workers and allies stomped in unison and yelled, "We work, we sweat, put $15 on our check!" The round ballroom was festooned with banners from Arizona, Little Rock, St. Louis, Memphis, Boston and Miami.

Those wearing the red “We Are Worth More” T-shirts were mostly Latino and African American, organized by community groups and the Service Employees International Union, and drawn from almost every imaginable franchise — McDonald’s, Dunkin’ Donuts, Wendy’s, Subway, Arby's and regional chains like Hardee's.

The workers still want what they demanded in the first fast-food strikes in 2012: $15 per hour and a union.

Fifteen dollars seemed unattainable then, but much has changed. On Friday, New York state convened its wage board to consider raising minimum hourly pay for fast-food workers, and St. Louis was set to introduce a proposal for phasing in $15 across the board. Last week, Los Angeles passed a $15 minimum wage to take effect by 2020, following the lead of San FranciscoSeattle and Sea-Tac, Washington.

“Two years ago, wage inequality was not even being mentioned. Now, there’s talk of how all workers need benefits and a raise, and the benefits of joining a union,” said Terrance Wise, an employee of McDonald’s and Burger King locations in Kansas City and an oft-profiled member of the Fight For $15’s national leadership committee. He has helped coordinate seven strikes in Kansas City and came by bus to downtown Detroit with 150 fellow workers.

Janell Rose and Gaylord Cade, both 31, support their three kids — ages 2,4 and 6 — with fast-food jobs.
E. Tammy Kim

Janell Rose and her husband Gaylord Cade also came from Missouri. They are both employed in the industry — Rose at Hardee's and Cade at Wendy's — at $7.65 per hour, supporting themselves and their three young children. Cade has grease burns on his forearms.

"We're here to fight for 15," he said. "It's needed. I barely have any family time and am stressing about paying the bills."

A full-time employee paid the federal minimum wage of $7.25 lives just above the federal poverty level, which is itself an outdated measure of wellness.

According to a 2013 study by the UC Berkeley Labor Center, more than half of the households supported by front-line fast-food workers rely on public benefits, including Medicaid and food stamps. This, many economists say, is a subsidy to corporations like McDonald’s, which reported nearly $5 billion in profits last year and has been condemned for pushing employees to apply for government assistance.

Walmart, too, is vulnerable to the same criticisms, and worker protests under the banner of OUR Walmart actually preceded those in fast food. Yet it is the calls for justice at McDonald’s, Kentucky Fried Chicken, Burger King and Taco Bell — those iconic, omnipresent U.S. eateries — that have catalyzed discontent over wages.

Lucious "Billy" Dunmeyer, 28, is a mason, but has joined with the fast-food workers to make it easier to join a union.
E. Tammy Kim

But not everyone at the convention is from the fast-food industry. Lucious "Billy" Dunmeyer, 28, a mason in Charleston, South Carolina, lasted just 24 hours as a McDonald's worker. "I couldn't handle the manager breathing down my neck!" he said.

For his work in construction, Dunmeyer is now paid $9 per hour, which is why, he said, he joined the Fight for $15 movement two months ago. "People who work in fast food actually work harder than me. But this is broader than that. A union has benefits: You're not fighting alone."

Tsedeye Gebreselassie, a lawyer at the National Employment Law Project, attributes a long list of local minimum wage victories to fast-food activism. “It has changed what’s possible,” she said, even nationally. “When we talk about a $12 federal minimum wage, it’s now, ‘Why not $15?’”

Given that so many fast-food protesters are black and Latino, the Fight for 15 has also seized on the rhetoric of civil rights. In recent months, the movement has connected with Black Lives Matter: decent, fairly compensated work as a complement to freedom from state violence. 

Inside the Detroit’s convention center, a contingent from Brooklyn wore "I Can't Breathe" hoodies, and a #BlackLivesMatter banner hung on the wall.

SEIU, known for unionizing low-wage janitors and home health aides, continues to fund the national fast-food campaign. It has spent an estimated $50 million on local nonprofits that organize fast-food workers, lawsuits alleging corporate liability for franchisees and public relations.

Fast-food chains cry foul. Independent restaurants are “operating on razor-thin profit margins,” Christin Fernandez, a spokeswoman for the National Restaurant Association, wrote by email.

“Drastic increases to the minimum wage … and the attempt by the [National Labor Relations Board] to overturn 30 years of established law regarding the franchise model” will only lead to job losses, she added.

Kent Wong, director of the UCLA Labor Center, said the fast-food movement has already achieved a great deal but that obstacles remain, especially when it comes to deciding next steps.

“The fast-food campaign has put the corporations on the defensive," he said. "The challenge is the staying power, whether we can translate the movement into a lasting structure."

Wong explained that the end goal is "an industry-wide, corporation-wide organizing strategy. That's never happened before."

Find Al Jazeera America on your TV

Get email updates from Al Jazeera America

Sign up for our weekly newsletter

Get email updates from Al Jazeera America

Sign up for our weekly newsletter