Fast food workers strike in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. (Josh Eidelson)
Fast food workers in cities all across the country are expected to strike Thursday as part of growing protests against the nation’s biggest restaurant and retailer chains. Low-wage workers at businesses like McDonald’s and Macy’s are fighting for a living wage of $15 an hour in pay, which is more than double the current national minimum wage of $7.25.
Organizing against low-paying jobs at fast food restaurants began last November in New York when hundreds of workers went on strike in a one-day protest. By the summer, the movement expanded to include thousands of workers across the country in cities like Detroit, Chicago and Kansas City.
This time around, workers in places like Los Angeles, Milwaukee, Memphis and Raleigh plan on getting involved with backing from the Service Employees International Union (SEIU).
There have already been tangible results from the strikes. Jonathan Westin, who helped organize New York’s first fast food strike as the executive director of New York Communities for Change, says some local workers have seen wage increases of twenty-five to fifty cents per hour, and Steve Ashby, a professor at the University of Illinois School of Labor and Employment Relations, says some Chicago strikers have also gotten higher wages post-strike.
The achievements, while modest, have also had another effect: lending courage to other workers who want to strike for living wages.
Angela Gholston, 24, has been working at a McDonald’s in Detroit for two years, and says she’s participating in the strike to help form a union, and make better wages so she can support her family and pay her bills.
“I receive Medicaid because I can’t even afford to pay for my employer’s healthcare plan,” she says.
Gholston has participated in past strikes at work, and says she feels emboldened by the organizing she’s seen in other states.
“They’re trying to help us and we’re trying to help them, and that’s good. We have to stand together in order to keep this movement going. We need [$15-per-hour minimum wage], not $7.40. What can we do with $7.40?”
Gholston says she wasn’t hesitant to participate in the strike, even though she lacks the protection of a union.
“We need to make a union. That’s the whole point of going on strike. If you don’t take action and stand up for what’s right, who is going to do it for you? I wasn’t scared at all.”
Mike Wilder, co-founder of the African-American Civic Engagement Roundtable in Milwaukee and Community Coalition Coordinator with Wisconsin Jobs Now, and campaign leader of Raise Up MKE—a group focused on fighting for living wages—says the strike is about holding profitable companies accountable for not paying workers enough to afford basic amenities like food and rent.
In Milwaukee, Wilder says organizers and workers have planned a day full of actions at specific stores throughout the city.
“Here in Milwaukee, the day will end with a march and a rally in support of low-wage workers in one of the city’s poorest neighborhoods,” says Wilder.
Wilder says Thursday is one step in a much larger movement.
“All across the country, workers are standing up and demanding higher wages so they can support themselves and their families without having to seek government assistance,” he says. “In Milwaukee, we started with a few dozen workers on strike in May, and now we have hundreds striking. Workers are planning future escalating actions until their demands are met.”
Wilder adds the goal of these types of actions is to send a message to “these billion-dollar corporations that workers are no longer going to struggle to survive on minimum wage, while record-breaking profits are generated by the companies that employ them. Workers are demanding [$15-per-hour minimum wage] and the right to form a union without retaliation.”
Dwight Murray, 27, has been working at a McDonald’s in Indianapolis since March, and says he’s participating in the strike because he gives a lot to McDonald’s.
“I work hard and I deserve to make enough to meet my family’s basic needs,” says Murray. “I struggle to get my 3-year-old daughter what she needs, and we have to make sacrifices on a regular basis. I’m going on strike because I deserve to make a liveable wage and to be able to take care of my daughter and even have money saved up for emergencies.”
Murray says fast food workers aren’t treated with the respect they deserve on the job.
“We’re working hard to live up to the ‘hot, fresh and ready in a minute-and-a-half’ standard, but sometimes there’s not enough staff, so we work eight hours without a break.”
Murray claims he’s been told that no overtime is allowed, but then if his replacement doesn’t show up, he can’t leave, and then his superiors “gripe” about paying for a single hour at the overtime rate. He adds that none of the employees can count on raises, and the people who work hard and have been there the longest in crucial roles sometimes don’t get raises at all.
This is the first time Murray has ever gone on strike, but he says he feels bolstered by actions in other states.
“It gave me even more incentive to join and put a fire in my belly to stand up for this. Before, I didn’t feel that there was a proper avenue for me to be heard. Now, I see that there is, and that I’m not alone. I’m standing up for myself and my coworkers, but also the millions of other workers across the country that also deserve a liveable wage.”
Proving that indeed courage is contagious, Murray says he feels safe striking because he knows other workers have his back, and there are workers across the country standing up together.
“I know my rights and I’m talking to other workers about their rights. There are workers in cities across the country going on strike together. We’re standing together in order for us to obtain a liveable wage.”
Parts of these interviews were edited for clarity.