Fight for $15 Protests Expand for Low-Wage Workers

NEW YORK (AP) -

Fast-food workers calling for $15 an hour picked up some more allies Wednesday.

Airport workers, home-care workers, Wal-Mart workers and adjunct professors are among those set to join in the Fight for $15 protests across the country, in what organizers are calling the biggest-ever mobilization of workers in the U.S.

The campaign, spearheaded by the Service Employees International Union, began in late 2012. On Wednesday, protests for higher pay and unions for low-wage workers were planned for more than 230 U.S. cities and college campuses, as well as dozens of cities overseas.

In Jackson, Mississippi, around 30 people demonstrated in a McDonald’s before being kicked out; organizers said about half of them were McDonald’s workers. One of the lead demonstrators was arrested for trespassing and police said the store manager said he plans to press charges.

Earlier in the morning, protesters rallied outside a McDonald’s in New York City, and they were planning more demonstrations throughout the day.

The demonstrations got an early start Tuesday afternoon in Boston, where several hundred people, including college students, low-wage workers and their supporters, gathered for a rally. In Detroit, protesters gathered in the evening inside a McDonald’s, and organizers say three employees walked off the job as part of the protests.

Kendall Fells, organizing director for Fight for $15, said that McDonald’s remains a focus of the protests and that the company’s recently announced pay bump shows fast-food workers already have a de facto union.

“It shows the workers are winning,” he said.

McDonald’s earlier this month said it would raise its starting salary to $1 above the local minimum wage, and give workers the ability to accrue paid time off. It marked the first national pay policy by McDonald’s, and indicates the company wants to take control of its image as an employer. But the move only applies to workers at company-owned stores, which account for about 10 percent of more than 14,300 locations.

That means McDonald’s is digging in its heels over a central issue for labor organizers: whether it has the power to set wages at franchised restaurants.

McDonald’s, Burger King and Wendy’s say they don’t control the employment decisions at franchised restaurants. The SEIU is working to change that and hold McDonald’s responsible for labor conditions at franchised restaurants in multiple ways, including lawsuits.

In an emailed statement, McDonald’s said it respects the right to “peacefully protest” and that its restaurants will remain open Wednesday. In the past, it said only about 10 to 15 McDonald’s workers out of about 800,000 have participated.

In a recent column in The Chicago Tribune, McDonald’s CEO Steve Easterbrook described the company’s pay hike and other perks as “an initial step,” and said he wants to transform McDonald’s into a “modern, progressive burger company.”

But that transformation will have to take place as labor organizers continue rallying public support for low-wage workers. Ahead of the protests this week, a study funded by the SEIU found working families rely on $153 billion in public assistance a year as a result of their low wages.

Organizers say the Fight for $15 is already changing the way people think about low-wage work.

Last year, more than a dozen states and multiple cities raised their minimum wages, according to the National Employment Law Project. Wal-Mart Stores Inc., which has also been targeted with protests for higher wages and better treatment for workers, also recently announced pay hikes.

Robert Reich, former Labor secretary and a professor of public policy at the University of California, Berkeley, said stagnating wages for lower-income workers are also helping change negative attitudes about unions.

“People are beginning to wonder if they’d be better off with bargaining power,” Reich said.

Jeff Amy contributed from Jackson, Mississippi.