Hundreds of workers rally across the East Bay for the “Fight for $15”

on April 16, 2015

Fast food and low-wage workers in Oakland, Richmond and Berkeley joined a workers’ strike dubbed “Fight for $15” on Wednesday, continuing a two-year-long campaign that calls on fast food chains to institute a $15 minimum wage and the right for workers to unionize without reprisal.

Across the East Bay, workers and union organizers protested in fast food franchises and urged fellow workers to join their strike. The day culminated in a 3 p.m. rally at UC Berkeley’s Sproul Plaza, where hundreds of people gathered to listen to speakers and dance to live music before marching to a McDonald’s franchise in downtown Berkeley. The protest was timed to coincide with Tax Day and also capitalized on the significance of the date 4/15 (representing $15). Organizers reported strikes in more than 200 cities across the country and said it was the largest low-wage workers’ protest in U.S. history.

In Oakland, workers kicked off the day by staging protests inside several McDonald’s franchises beginning at 8 a.m. They then marched to Telegraph Avenue to join another group of protesters at a McDonald’s on Telegraph Avenue at 45th Street just after 9:30 a.m. The crowd, numbering about 200 people, called on the employees behind the counter to walk off the job, chanting, “Come on out, we got your back!” The protesters greeted one employee, Sandra Roman, with raucous cheers when she gathered her purse and stepped out from behind the counter to join the strike. In total, two workers walked off the job at that McDonald’s.

“The reason why I joined the union is because, at this job, I have no rights. If I get sick and I call out, I get suspended for calling out,” Roman, 34, told protesters in Spanish while another worker translated into English. “I want to be protected. A lot of rules have been broken in this shop.”

Robert Reich, former U.S. Secretary of Labor and a UC Berkeley professor of public policy, joined workers at the McDonald’s, calling the campaign “the next civil rights movement in America.”

“The fight for a $15 minimum is not just a fight about higher wages,” Reich said into a megaphone to cheering protesters. “It’s a fight about morality, it’s a fight about decency, it’s a fight about dignity. … It’s about joining together, as workers once did, to make sure that we have a better chance for all of us.”

International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) organizer Fred Ross, Jr., whose late father was a community organizer famous for training a young Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta, also compared the fast food workers’ protest to a historical precedent: “Fifty years ago, the farm workers went out on strike on grape farms and everyone said, ‘You can’t do it.’ And what did they say? Si se puede!” Ross said to the cheering crowd at McDonald’s.

Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf also made an appearance to show her support. Schaaf was a strong proponent of Measure FF, which passed in November and raised Oakland’s minimum wage to $12.25 in March.

In Richmond, about 100 people demonstrated inside a Taco Bell on Barrett Avenue at 23rd Street, where employees tried to continue serving customers while the crowd called on them to walk out. Chanting “We’ll be back!” the protesters left the building and marched around the block to continue protesting inside a McDonald’s franchise. It was the first major fast food workers’ demonstration of its kind in Richmond; Richmond fast food workers have previously participated in actions in Oakland and Sacramento, but have never before organized actions in their own city.

By 3 p.m., contingents of workers from Oakland and Richmond had marched and bussed to the UC Berkeley campus to participate in a massive scheduled rally. The broad coalition of organizations present included East Bay Fast Food Workers, Service Employees International Union (SEIU), Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment (ACCE), East Bay Alliance for a Sustainable Economy (EBASE), the California Faculty Association, the Sierra Club, Black Lives Matter, the Oakland Workers’ Collective, and Restaurant Opportunities Centers (ROC) United. The crowd also included low-wage workers from San Jose and Sacramento, and members of United Farm Workers from Salinas.

Maricruz Manzanarez, an organizer with AFSCME Local 3299, which represents UC campus workers, spoke to the diversity of the groups present at the rally. “You are not alone,” she said, addressing the fast food workers in the crowd. “We are all willing to help fight for what is right.”

The fast food workers’ campaign first began in New York City in November, 2012. The campaign has since spread across the globe and into other low-wage labor sectors. Airport workers, home care workers, convenience store clerks, Walmart employees, farm workers, security guards, truck drivers and adjunct professors have all since helped to broaden the fight for a $15 minimum wage. The workers’ growing momentum constitutes what many labor experts regard as one of the most effective – and largest – labor movements in recent history. Though the federal minimum wage has remained at $7.25 since July 2009, 21 states and the District of Columbia raised their minimum wages on New Year’s Day this year.

Bay Area cities have also helped to spearhead the minimum wage hike. Last year, the Richmond City Council passed what was then the highest minimum wage in the country, which is slated to rise to $13 by 2018. Berkeley has raised its minimum wage to $12.53 and Oakland to $12.25.

But Roman, the McDonald’s employee who walked off the job, said that even if the minimum wage goes up, employees don’t necessarily make more unless they are protected by unions. “I want everyone to know that when the minimum wage went up, a lot of our coworkers, [managers] took away their hours,” Roman said to the protesters at the McDonald’s where she works.

Earlier this month, McDonald’s Corp. announced that it would raise its employees’ wages to $1 more than locally-mandated minimum wages beginning July 1. The pay raise applies only to its company-owned restaurants, which comprise less than 10 percent of McDonald’s restaurants in the U.S. McDonald’s projects that the average hourly wage rate for its employees at company-owned restaurants will be more than $10 by the end of 2016, according to an April 1 McDonald’s Corp. statement. On July 1, McDonald’s will also begin giving employees at its company-owned restaurants accrued, paid time off.

“We’ve listened to our employees and learned that – in addition to increased wages – paid personal leave and financial assistance for completing their education would make a real difference in their careers and lives,” said McDonald’s President and CEO Steve Easterbrook in the statement.

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