The Progressive


A project of Common Dreams

For Immediate Release

Hundreds of Fast-Food, Airport, Uber Workers Arrested as Strikes for $15, Union Rights Sweep America

‘We Won’t Back Down’


Police early Tuesday handcuffed fast-food cooks and cashiers, Uber drivers, home health aides and airport workers who blocked streets outside McDonald's restaurants from New York to Chicago, kicking off a nationwide wave of strikes and civil disobedience by working Americans in the Fight for $15 that is expected to result in additional mass arrests throughout the day.

In Detroit, dozens of fast-food and home care workers wearing shirts that read, "My Future is My Freedom" linked arms in front of a McDonald's and sat down in the street. As the workers were led to a police bus, hundreds of supporters chanted, "No Justice, No Peace." In Manhattan's Financial District, dozens of fast-food workers placed a banner reading "We Won't Back Down" on the street in front of a McDonald's on Broadway and a sat down in a circle, blocking traffic, until they were hauled away by police officers. And in Chicago, scores of workers sat in the street next to a McDonald's as supporters unfurled a giant banner from a grocery store next door that read: "We Demand $15 and Union Rights, Stop Deportations, Stop Killing Black People." Fast-food, home care and higher education workers were arrested, along with Cook County Commissioner Jesus "Chuy" Garcia.

The strikes, which began early Tuesday on the East Coast, are rolling westward throughout the morning, with McDonald's and other fast-food workers walking off their jobs in 340 cities from coast to coast, demanding $15 and union rights; baggage handlers, cabin cleaners and skycaps walking picket lines at Boston Logan International Airport and Chicago O'Hare International Airport to protest against unfair labor practices, including threats, intimidation and retaliation when they tried to join together for higher pay and union rights; Uber drivers in two-dozen cities idling their cars calling for a fair day's pay for a fair day's work; and hospital workers at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, who won a path to $15 earlier this year, joining in too, fighting for union rights.

Throughout the day, working Americans will wage their most disruptive protests yet to show they won't back down to newly-elected politicians and newly-empowered corporate special interests who threaten an extremist agenda to move the country to the right. Fast-food, airport, child care, home care, child care, higher education and Uber workers will make it clear that any efforts to block wage increases, gut workers' rights or healthcare, deport immigrants, or support racism or racist policies, will be met with unrelenting opposition.

"We won't back down until we win an economy that works for all Americans, not just the wealthy few at the top," said Naquasia LeGrand, a McDonald's worker from Albemarle, NC. "Working moms like me are struggling all across the country and until politicians and corporations hear our voices, our Fight for $15 is going to keep on getting bigger, bolder and ever more relentless."

The wave of strikes, civil disobedience, and protests follows an election defined by workers' frustration with a rigged economy that benefits the few at the top and comes exactly four years after 200 fast-food cooks and cashiers in New York City first walked off their jobs, sparking a movement for $15 and union rights that has compelled private-sector employers and local and state elected representatives to raise pay for 22 million Americans. A report released Tuesday by the National Employment Law Project shows the Fight for $15 has won nearly $62 billion in raises for working families since that first strike in 2012. That's 10 times larger than the total raise received by workers in all 50 states under Congress's last federal minimum wage increase, approved in 2007.

In all, tens of thousands of working people from coast to coast will protest Tuesday at McDonald's restaurants from Detroit to Denver and at 20 of the nation's busiest airports, which carry 2 million passengers a day. They will underscore to the country's biggest corporations that they must act decisively to raise pay and let President-elect Donald Trump, members of Congress, governors, state legislators and other elected leaders know that the 64 million Americans paid less than $15/hour are not backing off their demand for $15/hour and union rights. In addition to $15 and union rights, the working Americans will demand: no deportations, an end to the police killings of black people, and politicians keep their hands off Americans' health care coverage.

"To too many of us who work hard, but can't support our families, America doesn't feel fair anymore," said Oliwia Pac, who is on strike Tuesday from her job as a wheelchair attendant at O'Hare. "If we really want to make America great again, our airports are a good place to start. These jobs used to be good ones that supported a family, but now they're closer to what you'd find at McDonald's."

All over the country, working families are being supported in their protest by community, religious and elected leaders. In Chicago, U.S. Rep Jan Schakowsky walked the picket line with striking workers and Cook County Commissioner Jesus Garcia got arrested supporting strikers; while in New York City, councilmembers Brad Lander, Mark Levine and Antonio Reynoso got arrested alongside workers outside a McDonald's in Lower Manhattan. In Durham, NC the Rev. William Barber II, founder of the Forward Together Moral Movement, is expected to risk arrest with striking McDonald's workers later this afternoon, while in Kansas City, Mo. several dozen clergy members plan to get arrested alongside scores of fast-food workers.

"By rejecting the reactionary politics of divisiveness and relentlessly opposing injustice in all its forms, the workers in the Fight for $15 are lighting the way forward for our nation," said the Rev. William Barber II. "We need to come together across lines of class, race, and gender, and tell our newly elected leaders in one clear voice that we will not let you divide us, oppress us, or take us one step backward in our march towards a more perfect union. The fight for voting rights, living wages, and civil rights are all one fight."

While McDonald's workers are striking and risking arrest in the U.S., the company is also on the hot seat Tuesday for its mistreatment of workers in Europe, where the company is already under scrutiny for allegedly dodging more than EUR1.5 billion in taxes from 2009 to 2015. The European Parliament's Petition Committee held a hearing Tuesday, on three petitions filed by British, Belgian and French unions on mistreatment of McDonald's workers across the continent, including the widespread use in the United Kingdom of zero-hour contracts, in which workers are not guaranteed any hours; a bogus flexi-jobs program in Belgium that saps public coffers and undermines labor standards without created jobs; and a union-busting scheme in France. Protests are also expected by airport workers in Berlin and Amsterdam.

Poverty Pay Doesn't Fly

Tuesday's strikes by workers at Logan and O'Hare and the rush of protests at airports around the country mark an intensification of the participation in the Fight for $15 of airport workers, who have been linking arms with fast-food and other underpaid workers as the movement has grown. Skycaps, baggage handlers and cabin cleaners point to jobs at the nation's airports as a symbol of what's gone wrong for working-class Americans and their jobs. Four decades ago, every job in an airport was a good, family-sustaining one. Men and women worked directly for the major airlines, which paid a living wage, provided pensions and health care and respected Americans' right stick together in a union. That's no longer the case. Today, most Americans who work at airports are nonunion and are employed by subcontractors that pay low wages, without any benefits. Their jobs now represent the failures of a political and economic system geared towards the wealthy few and corporate profits at any cost.

Between 2002 and 2012 outsourcing of baggage porter jobs more than tripled, from 25 percent to 84 percent, while average hourly real wages across both directly-hired and outsourced workers declined by 45 percent, to $10.60/hour from more than $19/hour. Average weekly wages in the airport operations industry did not keep up with inflation, but instead fell by 14 percent from 1991 to 2011.

America's airports themselves are also a symbol of the concerted effort to erode the ability of working people to improve their jobs. President Reagan fired and permanently replaced 11,000 striking air traffic controllers in 1981, paving the way for a decades-long march by corporations and elected officials to systematically dismantle Americans' right to join together on the job. By zeroing in on airports Nov. 29, working-class families are looking to transform a symbol of their decline into a powerful show of their renewed force.

$15/hour: From 'Absurdly Ambitious to Mainstream'

The catalyst for that revival, the Fight for $15, launched Nov. 29, 2012, when 200 fast-food workers walked off their jobs at dozens of restaurants across New York City, demanding $15 and the right to form a union without retaliation. Since then it has grown into a global phenomenon that includes fast-food, home care, child care, university, airport, retail, building service and other workers across hundreds of cities and scores of countries. Working American have taken what many viewed as an outlandish proposition - $15/hour- and made it the new labor standard in New York, California, Seattle and Washington, D.C. Home care workers in Massachusetts and Oregon won $15/hour statewide minimum wages and companies including Facebook, Aetna, Amalgamated Bank, JP Morgan Chase and Nationwide Insurance have raised pay to $15/hour or higher. Union members working in nursing homes, public schools and hospitals have won $15/hour via collective bargaining.

All told, the Fight for $15 has led to wage hikes for 22 million underpaid working families, including more than 10 million who are on their way to $15/hour, by convincing everyone from voters to politicians to corporations to raise pay. The movement was credited as one of the reasons median income jumped last year by the highest percentage since the 1960s.

By joining together, speaking out and going on strike workers in the Fight for $15 have "elevated the debate around inequality in the U.S." and "entirely changed the politics of the country." Slate wrote that the Fight for $15 has completely "rewired how the public and politicians think about wages" and called it "the most successful progressive political project of the late Obama era, both practically and philosophically:" The New York Times wrote that the movement, "turned $15/hour "from laughable to viable," and declared, "$15 could become the new, de facto $7.25;"and The Washington Post said that $15/hour has "gone from almost absurdly ambitious to mainstream in the span of a few years."

This election year working-class voters made the fight for $15 and union rights a hot button political issue in the race for the White House through an effort to mobilize underpaid voters. Workers dogged candidates throughout the primary and general election debates, calling on candidates to "come get our vote" and forcing presidential hopefuls to address their demands for $15/hour. Strikes and protests at more than a dozen debates forced candidates on both sides of the aisle to address working families' growing calls for higher pay and union rights. This summer, the Democratic Party adopted a platform that includes a $15/hour minimum wage, and recently even Republican elected leaders, including Mr. Trump (who had earlier said wages are "too high"), began to break from their opposition to raising pay.

Voices from the Fight for $15

Dayla Mikell, a child care worker in St. Petersburg, Fla., said: "Risking arrest today isn't the easy path, but it's the right one. My job is all about caring for the next generation, but I'm not paid enough to be able to afford my own apartment or car. Families like mine and millions others across the country demand $15, union rights and a fair economy that lifts up all of us, no matter our race, our ethnicity or our gender. And when it's your future on the line, you do whatever it takes to make sure you are heard far and wide."

Sepia Coleman, a home care worker from Memphis, Tenn., said: "For me, the choice is clear. I am risking arrest because our cause is about more than economic justice--it is about basic survival. Like millions of Americans, I am barely surviving on $8.25/hour. Civil disobedience is a bold and risky next step, but our voices must be heard: we demand $15, a union and justice for all Americans."

Scott Barish, a teaching assistant and researcher at Duke University in Durham, N.C., said: "I do research and teach classes that bring my university critical funding, but the administration doesn't respect me as a worker and my pay hasn't kept up with the rising cost of living. I could barely afford to repair my car this year. And I'm risking arrest today because millions of American workers are struggling to support their families and the need for change is more urgent than ever. We are ramping up our calls for $15 and union rights, healthcare for all workers, and an end to racist policies that divide us further."

Justin Berisie, an Uber driver in Denver, Co., said: "Everyone says the gig economy is the future of work, but if we want to make that future a bright one, we need to join together like fast-food workers have in the Fight for $15 and demand an economy that works for all. Across the country, drivers are uniting and speaking out to fight for wages and working conditions that will allow us to support our families and help get America's economy moving."

U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minnesota) said: "When I talk to people on the picket lines in Minnesota and around the country, they tell me they're striking for a better life for their kids and their families. They tell me they're working harder than ever, and still struggling to make ends meet. In the wealthiest country in the world, nobody working full time should be living in poverty. But the power of protest and working people's voices can make all the difference. Politics might be the art of the possible, but organizing is the art of making more possible. Workers around the country are fighting to make better working conditions and better wages possible. And I stand with them."

Fast food workers are coming together all over the country to fight for $15 an hour and the right to form a union without retaliation. We work for corporations that are making tremendous profits, but do not pay employees enough to support our families and to cover basic needs like food, health care, rent and transportation.