As New Yorkers bustled along Eighth Avenue at lunchtime on Thursday, fast-food workers proudly marched off the job. And unlike most days, when workers quietly shuffle burgers over a fluorescent-lit counter, the protesters sat solemnly on the street under the glaring sun, waiting to be rounded up by police.
“What we’ve started and what we’ve become—it’s the same idea, but it’s branched out,” said Shantel Walker, who works as a shift manager at Papa John’s for $8.50 an hour. Standing with the crowd across the street from a McDonald’s, she said it was her sixth strike since joining the movement. “So [our] strength is growth.… We’re so proud of each other.”
Thursday’s protests hit about 150 sites, including Chicago, Detroit and other cities, reportedly leading to several hundred arrests. Unions and community activists joined the workers, holding up “#strikefastfood” signs and chanting “I believe that we can win.” Nearly two years since their mobilization began with about 200 workers in New York, the ruckus on Eighth Avenue indicated that fast food workers are following through on their pledge at their national convention in July, amplifying their two key demands: a $15 hourly wage and a union.
Now that the fast-food worker campaigns, backed by institutional support from SEIU, have evolved into a global phenomenon, with protests from São Paulo to Auckland, from Wendy’s to Starbucks to Sukiya beef bowl, no one knows exactly where the movement is headed next. But Thursday’s main message was that fast food workers’ plight represents the extreme inequality that plagues communities across the country.
Jeanina Jenkins, a McDonald’s worker from St. Louis, joined the New York protests in solidarity and declared: “We all need the same things: to put food on the table, a roof over our heads, and clothes on our backs.… The math doesn’t work on $8 an hour. So we’re here doing whatever it takes to win $15 an hour and union rights so the math does work.” Jenkins was one of several St. Louis area workers who chose to protest outside their hometown out of respect for the ongoing unrest in Ferguson.