Low-Paid Workers Stage Another Mass One-Day Walkout

Low-paid workers – fast food workers, retail workers, adjunct professors, health care workers and others – from coast to coast staged yet another 1-day walkout on April 14, again demanding “$15 and a union.”

The protests attracted hundreds of thousands of people in 320 cities, including unionists who back the low-paid workers. The protests – especially against McDonald’s – spread to the Philippines and Brazil. Protesters again called attention to the fact that millions of U.S. workers are both underpaid and lack the best way to better themselves, union contracts.

The protests were so widespread that hospital workers at UPMC – the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center – became the newest participants. They won National Labor Relations Board rulings backing their right to organize, almost a year ago. But UPMC refuses to follow the law and recognize and bargain with the Service Employees, whom the workers voted for. So the hospital workers walked.

“I’m striking for their future,” 10-year UPMC worker Nila Payton told ThinkProgress. UPMC has already announced it will raise its base pay to $15 an hour by 2021, but the single mother of two sons, ages 12 and 16, wants to see that hike come sooner. She also wants UPMC to address short-staffing and their right to unionize, too.

Fifteen dollars an hour “can make a difference, but that just barely scratches the surface,” she said. “We can’t afford health care, our benefits.”

Adriana Alvarez, a Chicago McDonald’s worker and single mom, told ThinkProgress the $15 wage must come to her in the Windy City. After two years without a raise, McDonald’s raised pay by a dime nationwide. Alvarez now makes $10.50 hourly, still below a $13 minimum wage the Chicago City Council enacted for workers in firms with public contracts. 

“I’m living paycheck to paycheck, just waiting on payday because my son needs this or he needs that,” Alvarez said. One of her biggest expenses is day care. It used to cost $46 a month, but Illinois budget fights – and cuts by Right Wing GOP Gov. Bruce Rauner -- have almost tripled that cost, to $125 weekly.

Service Employees President Mary Kay Henry, whose union has funded and helped organize the Fight for 15 movement, hailed its recent wins -- $15 an hour minimum wage laws in New York and California – but also said low-wage workers would remember who stood with them politically, and who didn’t. Sen. Bernie Sanders, Ind.-Vt., a Democratic presidential con-tender, backs the $15 minimum wage. Hillary Clinton backs $12.50. The GOP hopefuls don’t.

“Both those who have won wage increases and those who haven’t are going to bring their power to the ballot box this November to make sure candidates respond to their demand for $15 and union rights,” said Henry.

“New York is where the Fight for $15 started, and New York is now the site of a monumental victory that now extends beyond fast-food cooks and cashiers who won their minimum wage of $15 an hour to millions more New Yorkers,” she added.

New York’s marchers, parading down Broadway, stopped by a Verizon store to show solidarity with union strikers. Verizon demands for millions of dollars in givebacks and unlimited rights to outsource jobs drove 39,000 workers, members of the Communications Workers and the Electrical Workers from Maine through Virginia, to strike on April 13 (see Verizon story).

The unionists led the marchers in a chant: “What do we fight? Corporate greed. What do we want? A union job.”

The marches also highlighted that the nature of the working class has changed, AFL-CIO Executive Vice President Tefere Gebre and Jobs With Justice Director Sarita Gupta and other speakers told a session at Washington’s National Press Club.

Rather than a white-male dominated workforce, the new low-wage workforce is predominantly female and minority, the panelists said. That status often brings accompanying disrespect, devaluation and downgrading of workers by the corporate class, they added.

“Working men and women are taking action, not just for wages, but for dignity,” Gupta declared. “Working women tell endless horror stories of being unable to go to their own doctors’ appointments because they will miss a shift and lose their jobs.”

And the workers “are also being told ‘You should be grateful you’re getting this paycheck,’ and that you should be proud to work for this company, which is abusing you,’” Gebre added. “I’m hoping we get to the point of saying, ‘Enough is enough.’”

As a result, said another speaker, strong pro-worker advocate Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., while economic numbers show a recovery from the Great Recession, workers -- especially minority workers and women -- have not felt it in their paychecks and pocketbooks.

“The unemployment numbers have been dropping” during the recovery from the crash, she said. “But if you’re working part-time at McDonald’s because you can’t find a full-time job, or your factory job was shipped overseas” and you got a lower-paying service job “you’re part of that” unemployment decline. “And how good is that?”

But Gebre had one big warning at the D.C. session: That “a lot of people forget about the union part” of the Fight for 15. That’s just as key, he stated, because “While our goal is to increase wages, if we really want working people to win, we’ve got to find a way to get them collective bargaining.”

“How did we get here? How did we get to a situation where you treat workers like dirt? Well, for the last 30 years, Washington works great if you can hire an army of lobbyists and lawyers” to preserve and expand the clout and advantages of the 1 percent, Warren said.