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Nearly 500 Hundred Arrested as Fast-Food Workers Rise Up

Strikes and protests in more than a hundred US cities reveals rapidly growing effort by labor unions and low-wage workers to join forces and reclaim power of organized people

Jon Queally

Hundreds of fast-food workers and their supporters were arrested in cities across the country on Thursday as they stood up (and in some cases sat down) as they demanded a $15/hour minimum wage, the right to unionize, and better working conditions across the industry.

In what was the largest coordinated action yet by the low-wage workers movement that has been establishing itself over the last several years, nearly 500 people participated in civil disobedience that led to their arrest outside major fast-food chain restaurants, that included McDonald's, Burger King, Taco Bell, KFC, and others.

The New York Times reports:

Organizers said nearly 500 protesters were arrested in three dozen cities — including Chicago, Detroit, Las Vegas, New York and Little Rock, Ark. All told, the sit-ins took place in about 150 cities nationwide, the organizers said.

In Milwaukee, United States Representative Gwen Moore, Democrat of Wisconsin, was arrested along with several fast-food workers.

“I’m doing this for better pay,” said Crystal Harris, a McDonald’s worker from St. Louis, minutes before she sat down in the middle of 42nd Street in Manhattan outside a McDonald’s restaurant about 7:30 a.m. on Thursday. “I struggle to make ends meet on $7.50 an hour."

The protesters carried signs saying, “Low Pay Is Not O.K.,” “On Strike to Lift My Family Up,” and “Whatever It Takes: $15 and Union Rights.” They also want McDonald’s and other fast-food chains to agree not to fight a unionization drive.

(See pictures of the day's actions here, here, and here.)

The Guardian reports:

Many fast-food jobs pay little more than the federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour. Thursday’s day of action called for a minimum wage of at least $15.

By the afternoon organisers reported police had arrested 436 people nationwide with more than 43 arrests in Detroit, 19 in New York City, 23 in Chicago, 10 in Little Rock, Arkansas, and 10 in Las Vegas. Protestors were arrested in New York after blocking traffic in front of a McDonald’s in Times Square. In Los Angeles police warned fast food workers sitting in the street they were part of an “illegal assembly” before arresting them.

“We’re definitely on the upward move because we feel justice is on our side … we can’t wait,” said Douglas Hunter, a McDonald’s worker in Chicago who said he has difficulty supporting his 16-year-old daughter on his hourly wage. “We think this is ridiculous in a country as rich as America.”

Also in the Guardian, economy columnist Heidi Moore suggests that not only is the fast-food workers movement growing—it's working. She writes:

From the first $15-an-hour protest in Seattle in May 2013 to a convention in July, 60 cities on 29 August 29, and Thursday’s first widespread act of intentional civil obedience in the movement, the development of the fast-food protests has shown evidence of a labor movement ready to re-make itself.

 “The unions themselves are recognizing that the old system is broken and they need to retool and try new strategies and new things, and that’s what the fast food strikes represent,” says Professor Ruth Milkman of the Graduate Center of the City University of New York (Cuny), who has co-authored a new report on the progress of the labor movement in New York and the rest of the US.

Today’s strikes are different from previous ones in a number of ways, demonstrating the willingness to innovate, said Milkman. The widespread civil disobedience – courting potential arrest by walking out on the job – is one aspect that has been widely mentioned. Other innovations: the addition of home healthcare workers, a separate industry that major unions like the SEIU have worked hard to unionize, but which has not received as much attention as fast food. Tying the two industries together is, for the unions, a way to widen their reach.

And the Huffington Post adds:

The high-profile strikes -- which tend to draw national news coverage when they happen -- have helped progressive legislators push through minimum wage hikes on the state and local level in recent months, including a $15 wage floor that will slowly go into effect in Seattle. Even President Barack Obama has held up the protests as evidence that Congress needs to hike the federal minimum wage, which hasn't been raised since 2009. The current level of $7.25 is less than half of what the Fight for $15 campaign is calling for.

"You know what? If I were looking for a job that lets me build some security for my family, I’d join a union," Obama said Monday in a Labor Day speech. "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."

While the fast-food companies themselves have generally remained quiet, critics of the campaign who sympathize with the industry have tried to dismiss the protests as stunts orchestrated by the Service Employees International Union. The union has devoted millions of dollars to the campaign in an effort to bring unionism to what's generally a union-free industry.

With some exceptions, the fast-food strikes generally haven't been large enough to shut down restaurants. In fact, it isn't always clear how many of the people participating in a protest are striking workers. In Charleston on Thursday, several workers said they had the day off and wanted to take part in the protest; others told HuffPost they were missing a scheduled shift and were formally notifying their bosses they were taking part in a protected one-day strike.

Jonathan Bennett said he was supposed to be working at Arby's on Thursday.

"If we don't do this, I don't know who will," Bennett said. "$15 could change everything."


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