Fast-food Strikes Widen Into Social Justice Movement
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Author: Bruce Horovitz
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USA Today

Organizers are calling it the largest-ever mobilization of U.S. workers seeking higher pay.

That's yet to be determined. But what began on Tuesday with several low-wage worker protests and marches in Boston and Detroit started seriously expanding nationwide on Wednesday beginning shortly after 6 a.m. at a McDonald's in New York City, where hundreds of fast-food workers and sympathizers blocked traffic near the main artery to the Brooklyn Bridge. Protesters listened to speeches and unfurled a giant banner demanding $15 an hour.

Wednesday's activity is projected by organizers to evolve over the course of Tax Day into a 230-city protest and strike, not only by fast-food workers, but also by everything from adjunct professors to home care employees to child care workers to Walmartworkers.

"It's something different," says Kendall Fells, organizing director of Fight for $15, which is funded by the Service Employees International Union. "This is much more of an economic and racial justice movement than the fast-food workers strikes of the past two years."

Unlike some recent strikes — including one nationwide fast-food strike in September where nearly 500 workers were arrested — organizers say they are not calling for actions that would lead to arrests in this one. The purpose of today's action isn't to get arrested, says Fells, but to achieve "living wages" of $15 an hour, and give workers the right to form a union without the fear of retaliation.

"I'm not just fighting for me — I'm fighting for my kids," says Rod Livingston, 27, a cashier and cook who works two jobs at a McDonald's and Taco Bell in St. Petersburg, Fla., who was protesting today outside the McDonald's where he works. Livingston, who says he's forced to live out of his car — while his sons, ages 2 and 8, live with their mom — says that he sometimes is forced to choose between buying pills to control his high blood pressure and diapers for his son.

"My 8-year-old asks me: Daddy, how come I don't get to see you?" says Livingston, who doesn't want to try to explain to his child that he has to work two jobs to stay afloat.

As the 2016 presidential campaign just begins to take shape, wage fairness and social justice are evolving issues that presidential candidates may increasingly have to address. Today's strike takes shape even as two of the nation's largest private employers — Walmart and McDonald's — both made recent, small movements to improve wages for employees.

This strike has some outspoken sympathizers, too. Among them: George Zimmer, founder and former CEO of Men's Wearhouse. "I think that capitalism needs some modifications if it's going to remain sustainable," he says, in a phone interview. "But I'm encouraged. I think this is the first generation since mine that's prepared to collaborate, not just compete."

Not everyone is so sympathetic. "The protests aren't about wages or working conditions, they are about promoting the SEIU's campaign to unionize the fast-food industry. Yet after investing two years and at least $30 million in these PR stunts, the SEIU still struggles to find actual employees to participate, let alone express an interest in joining a union," says Glenn Spencer, vice president of the Workforce Freedom Initiative for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, in a statement.

McDonald's, at the focal point of the protests, continues to insist that it's the franchisees — not the company — that sets wages at about 90% of its U.S. restaurants, which are independently owned an operated by franchisees.

In a statement, McDonald's said: "We respect people's right to peacefully protest, and our restaurants remain open every day with the focus on providing an exceptional experience for our customers. Recently, McDonald's USA announced a wage increase and paid time off for employees at its company-owned restaurants and expanded educational opportunities for eligible employees at all restaurants. This is an important and meaningful first step as we continue to look at opportunities that will make a difference for employees."

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