I stopped by the “Fight for 15” demonstration this morning in Little Rock and North Little Rock and spoke to a number of organizers and workers about why they’d joined the movement to demand higher wages for workers in the service industry. I’d estimate there were 40 to 50 people participating in the protest, including some folks representing the Service Employees International Union (SEIU).
At a similar day of action in Little Rock in September, most of the protesters were from out of state. This time, the majority were from Little Rock, and most are currently working in fast food joints. Most, but not all, were African American. Many were in their 20s, although quite a few looked to be in their 30s, 40s and older — a reminder that a great deal of the people working in minimum wage jobs these days are parents, not teenagers (as Acadia Roher points out in a guest column in this week’s Times).
When I pulled up at the McDonalds in North Little Rock, the protesters were massing on the sidewalk. They entered the building, chanting for $15, waving signs and urging the store’s employees to join them. Walk on out / We got your back / Walk on out / We got your back.
None did, although several looked like they were considering it. The protesters lingered inside just long enough to disorient the customers and staff and then headed to the sidewalk again, harvesting supportive honks from big rigs headed for the truck stop across Broadway St.
Was this a strike? That’s what the group itself called the action, but it’s not exactly accurate according to the traditional definition of the term. The immediate goal isn’t to shut down the fast food establishments themselves. It’s awfully hard to have a strike against a big multinational corporation without the backing of a union, which is why the right to unionize is one of the demands of the movement: Unless they’re organized, workers are largely at the mercy of owners.
But things have changed dramatically since the glory days of American unions, and, as William Finnegan wrote in a must-read New Yorker piece in September, one point of the Fight for 15 movement is to try to figure out a new model for organized labor — one that can work for the low-wage workers so often rendered disposable and invisible by the 21st century economy.
Strike or not, the demonstration was impressive. The protesters were energetic, determined and focused; they were forceful but respectful. They mostly stayed on the sidewalk, not on McDonald’s property. They were filled with the pride of a righteous cause, they were having a good time — and, they knew exactly why they were there.
I asked one young man why he was protesting. He’s been in fast food for years, he said, and he’s tired of not getting fairly compensated for working harder than most. “I do all the shifts — cashier, cleaning, cooking.” Why doesn’t he try to enter a more lucrative line of work, I asked?
“Sure, there’s going to be a point where you want to transition into an actual career,” he conceded, “but they don’t pay you enough to do that. Let’s say I got an internship doing something I really want to do. I couldn’t afford to do it, because I can’t save up any money now.” He’s got a point: The very fact that minimum wage makes material survival such a struggle means that it’s extremely difficult for many people to work their way out of poverty.
It’s “ironic,” he said, that our society celebrates wealth and scorns the poor. “If a celebrity walks into a bar, he gets drinks on the house. But a bum walks into the same bar and asks for a drink of water and he gets thrown into the street.” So is he working a fast food job currently? He grinned and unzipped his jacket halfway to reveal a button-down shirt. “I’ve got an interview this afternoon,” he said.
Outside the McDonald’s in North Little Rock, I spoke to Jeanina Jenkins, a young protester and organizer from St Louis wearing a “Remember Mike Brown” pin on her black hoodie. She worked at a McDonalds in STL for three years at $7.97 an hour, she said, and struggled to make ends meet.
“It’s like, do you pay the gas bill, the electricity or do you pay the rent?” she asked. “Because you need all of them to survive, but it’s like you have to sacrifice to pay either/or.”
“The reason I got involved was because we used to organize within our store and a woman who I work with said, ‘Look at the menu.’ Some menu items at McDonalds, you can’t even afford after working an hour. And I feel like that’s ridiculous. How is that meal worth more than what a worker makes?”
Strike, strike, strike, strike / Organizing is our right
Strike, strike, strike, strike / Organizing is our right
The workers moved next door to make a quick lap around the Wendy’s, which at 10 a.m. was still closed. I began talking with an older man named Clarence who works at the McDonalds on Broadway in Little Rock. After two and a half years on the job, he’s now being a paid a little more than the minimum wage of $7.25.
“$7.50,” he said. “It took me two years to get 25 cents.”
Clarence also works a second job at UAMS, he says, where he belongs to a union.
“[At UAMS] they actually talk to you like they respect you. In fast food, a whole lot of the managers feel like they can talk to you any kind of way. At the McDonald’s where I work, I’m the oldest one that works there. I respect them [the management], but when they try to treat me like a child? There have been times when I have blown up, but it’s best for me to hold my tongue.”
“I’m 57 years old. I have a 12 year old son. And if it was up to me just working in a fast food restaurant to pay my bills and raise my son, that wouldn’t be possible … I look at it like, the younger generation now, there are so many of them out on the street today doing what they do on the street, because they can make more money in half a day than what I can make in two weeks, working. That’s why they don’t want to work in a fast food restaurant.”
“Life has been hard. It’s been tough. I can’t do some of the things I’d like to do for myself or for my son, because I just don’t have money — like the type of Christmas that I’d like for my son to have. In order to give him the things I’d like for him to have, I can’t pay the light bill.”
As we completed the lap around the Wendy’s, three female workers stepped out of the back door of the Wendy’s to hear the chants. One started dancing, which was a big hit with everyone.
“See, it ain’t just me that feels this way. You can see for yourself,” said Clarence. “There are a lot of people who are afraid because they feel as though they’re going to lose their jobs, but that’s because they don’t have information about the union. If they had information about the union, they would know that they aren’t going to get fired. It’s their right.”
“I’m from Providence, Rhode Island. That’s all they have is unions up there. I’ve worked at Providence Hospital, where that whole hospital is a union — before they fire you, they’ve got to have some real good grounds. What do we have at McDonalds? They try to fire you because they say, ‘I want you to do this here’ when I’m already doing two other jobs. But you want me to stop doing these two jobs and go get some bags or something. And then if you don’t do it, they say, ‘just clock out and go home.’ A whole lot of them power trip.”