More than two dozen of Charleston’s fast-food employees marched last week to an intersection where a McDonald’s, Wendy’s and KFC are located. Demanding a living wage of $15 per hour, they sat in the middle of a freeway entrance, stopping rush hour traffic for over a mile.
Charleston police ultimately pulled the protestors out of the street and cited them one-by-one for disorderly conduct in a set of “non-custodial” arrests. A total of 18 people — most all of them earning minimum wage salaries — were arrested outside McDonald’s.
“I’m just tired of seeing my family struggle,” Robert Brown, a 20-year-old McDonald’s employee, said after the police cited him an in an order to appear in court. “I can’t help them at all with what I make.”
The Charleston incident was part of a nationwide collective protest on Thursday coordinated by Fight for $15, a union-supported campaign demanding a $15 wage for all workers in the U.S., plus across-the-board union identification. With backing from local labor and community groups, workers have been participating in a set of recurrent strikes across a number of cities over the past two years in an effort to put the spotlight on fast-food companies like McDonald’s to address low pay and unreliable hours.
Organizers have identified last week’s strikes and worker protests as an intensification of the civil disobedience campaign. The demonstrations have expanded far beyond large cities like Chicago and New York where they originated. According to news reports on Thursday, workers hit the streets nationwide, including Durham, North Carolina; Tucson, Arizona; and Rochester, New York.
A representative with Fight for $15 said that nearly 500 demonstrators had been arrested in protests as of Thursday afternoon. This included 47 arrests in Kansas City, Missouri; 27 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin; 19 in New York City’s Times Square; 30 in Detroit; 11 in San Diego; 8 in Wilkinsburg, Pennsylvania; 7 in Miami; and 3 in Denver. Police also confirmed 19 citations in Chicago; 10 in Indianapolis; 13 in Hartford, Connecticut; and 10 in Las Vegas. In most cases, the arrests and citations came after protesters were blocking traffic.
The strikes aim to bring national attention and news coverage to the issue; and in recent months this increased awareness has given progressive legislators the support to enact minimum wage hikes on the state and local level, including a $15 wage floor that will gradually be implemented in Seattle. Even President Obama has identified the protests as indication that Congress should raise the minimum wage at the federal level, which has remained the same since 2009. Currently, the minimum wage is $7.25 – less than half of what the Fight for $15 campaign is calling for.
In a Labor Day speech last week, Obama said “If I were looking for a job that lets me build some security for my family, I’d join a union. If I were busting my butt in the service industry and wanted an honest day’s pay for an honest day’s work, I’d join a union.”
For the most part, the fast-food strikes haven’t been extensive enough to close down restaurants. Yet workers remain undeterred. “If we don’t do this, I don’t know who will,” said Jonathan Bennett, a worker at Arby’s. “$15 could change everything.”
Many states, including South Carolina, do not legally mandate a minimum wage higher than the federal level. Most all workers interviewed by reporters at the protests said they made less than $8 per hour at their restaurants. This adds up to only $16,000 per year for a full-time worker, which falls far below the poverty level for a family of three. And to make things more challenging, many workers report that they don’t even get a full 40 hours each week.
As in most other cities with fast-food strikes, the Charleston protest included just a small percentage of the city’s total low-wage workforce. Yet the fact that this movement was even happening in South Carolina surprised many labor analysts. The state has the third-lowest union rates in the country, with little of the organized labor infrastructure that often helps maintain such wage protests.