As the gears of federal government have ground to a halt, a new energy has been rocking the foundations of our urban centers. From Atlanta to Seattle and points in between, cities have begun seizing the initiative, transforming themselves into laboratories for progressive innovation. Income inequality, affordable housing, climate change, sustainable development, public health, participatory government—cities are tackling them all, bringing new urgency to some of the most vital questions of the day. Welcome to the age of big city progressivism! Cities Rising is The Nation’s contribution to the conversation.
On a crisp November morning in Oakland, 50 people dressed in red T-shirts burst into a McDonald’s, bringing breakfast orders to a halt. From behind the counter, several cashiers gaped at the scene, where an orderly line of customers had been replaced by a rowdy crew that bounced and shouted, calling for the restaurant to raise its wages to $15 an hour. A supervisor whipped out her cell phone and began filming. The chant, directed at the workers, grew louder: “Come on out—we’ve got your back!” After giving it some thought, three female employees walked past their supervisor, clocked out, and joined the protesters. The crowd erupted in cheers.
The group, which included striking fast-food workers from across the East Bay, gathered afterward in the parking lot to celebrate. They would hit half a dozen restaurants before the day was over, part of a nationwide movement that has grown to attract low-wage workers across multiple industries. Among the strikers was Shardeja Woolridge, who works part-time at a McDonald’s in the nearby city of Hayward, where she lives with her mother in a two-bedroom apartment. Woolridge earns $9 an hour, California’s minimum wage; her mom receives disability benefits. It’s not nearly enough. They’ve received eviction notices and had their electricity shut off. The 19-year-old recently enrolled at Berkeley City College but struggled to pay for textbooks. “I can hardly buy my own soap or deodorant,” she says. Behind her, workers hoist a red-and-black banner that reads #fightfor15.
I ask Woolridge what might be different if she made $15 an hour. “Whoa,” she says. “Fifteen.” Her eyes turn to the cloudless sky. “Whoa,” she repeats, her voice trailing off. She could help pay the rent. She could stock the fridge with food. She could afford Wi-Fi. Above all, she could finally stop fighting so much with her mom. “We are constantly butting heads,” Woolridge says. “She doesn’t understand that I don’t have money. I’m like, ‘This is really all I make,’ but she can’t get it.”
The movement for a $15 minimum wage began three years earlier, on a chilly fall morning in 2012, when 200 fast-food workers walked off the job in New York City. Their demand was audacious: $15 an hour was more than twice what many of them earned. But more strikes and protests followed, with the movement spreading quickly, driven by workers like Woolridge. What had started as a targeted campaign under the slogan “Fast Food Forward” grew to include low-wage workers across numerous industries.