As the Democratic Party held its fourth presidential debate in Charleston, South Carolina this week, more than 1,000 low-wage workers shut down the city's streets demanding that the White House hopefuls embrace their Fight for $15 agenda.
The Jan. 17 mass march in front of the Gaillard Municipal Auditorium where the debate was held downtown was the culmination of a series of public events over the weekend where workers voiced their demands for a $15 an hour minimum wage and union rights, affordable child and senior care, an end to discriminatory policing and immigration reform. Vermont Senator and presidential candidate Bernie Sanders addressed the crowd briefly and expressed his support for the Fight for $15 movement, which has put the national spotlight on the issue of wage inequality by organizing a series of fast-food worker strikes over the past three years.
A block away from the auditorium stands Mother Emanuel AME Church, the site of the horrific massacre last June that left eight churchgoers and their pastor, state Rep. Clementa Pinckney, dead. After raucous chants at Gaillard, protesters formed a single line and silently filed past the church, each person leaving a flower as they paused for a moment of reflection. Many left tears.
The day of protest began with an early morning demonstration at a downtown McDonald's. The restaurant lost its kitchen manager when he rushed from the store past his supervisors and police officers and into the arms of cheering protesters.
Later in the day, organizers hosted a roundtable session on wage inequality at the College of Charleston where leaders described why they were taking to the streets, and the importance of the Fight for $15 agenda. Fast-food worker and South Carolina native Rachel Nelson said that she would be voting for the first time "because the movement makes me feel like for the first time my voice is actually being heard." Nelson, a 10-year veteran of fast-food work, is employed at Hardee's restaurant in Charleston where she makes $9 an hour.
"I'm on strike today to show that my work is important," she said. "I'm going to be marching to the presidential debate to tell candidates that if they want my vote, and the vote of millions of us struggling, they need to stand on the right side of history and support our movement for $15 and union rights."
Speaking to the assembled group of 80 low-wage workers at the college forum, state Sen. Marlon Kimpson was interrupted repeatedly by enthusiastic applause and spontaneous chants as he outlined a bill he has sponsored that would establish a statewide $15 an hour minimum. South Carolina is among five states with no minimum wage.
The Fight for $15 movement's current efforts to influence the national election hearkens back to the 1960 "March on Conventions Movement for Freedom Now" spearheaded by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and A. Philip Randolph, president of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters. Riding the wave of student-led sit-in protests targeting segregated businesses and public spaces, Randolph and King organized mass marches at both the Republican and Democratic national conventions that year.
"The time has come when the political parties of this country must feel this revolutionary mood and determination of the Negro people," Randolph and King wrote in announcing their protest plans. "At present, no candidate for the presidency has measured up to the courage of the Southern students. All of them have looked the other way when their parties have tolerated racists or made deals with racists."
In July of 1960, 5,000 protesters demonstrated outside the GOP convention in Chicago and the Democratic convention in Los Angeles. The eventual Democratic nominee and general election winner, John F. Kennedy, addressed the Los Angeles protesters shortly before the start of the convention. "The next President of the United States cannot stand above the battle, engaging in vague sermons on brotherhood," Kennedy declared to a mix of applause and jeers. Like the election of 1960, the upcoming election will take place in the midst of a spike in grassroots political activity around issues of wage inequality and discriminatory policing.
Labor activists have made South Carolina's low-wage economy exhibit A in their case for stronger policies to combat poverty and wage inequality, an effort that will continue at least through the late February primaries. On Feb. 6, Charleston will host a "Raising Wages Summit" with AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka delivering the keynote remarks. Low-wage workers are also expected to protest at the Feb. 13 Republican debate in Greenville, South Carolina.