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500 arrested, as fast food workers up the ante in ‘Fight for 15’

At a conference outside of Chicago in late July, fast food workers from across the country vowed to pursue civil disobedience for a $15 minimum wage. Last Thursday, they followed through: Over 500 fast food workers in 150 cities across every region of the country were arrested in a national strike.

Announced on Labor Day, the strike featured 19 arrests in New York City, 47 in Kansas City, Mo., 42 in Detroit and 23 in Chicago, according to MSNBC and the Huffington Post. The 19 protesters arrested in West Milwaukee were even joined by Rep. Gwen Moore, who represents the city in Congress. Where the movement thus far has gotten the most attention in cities like New York and Chicago, Thursday’s actions saw arrests in cities from Wilkinsboro, Pa., to Tuscon, Ariz. A McDonald’s employee in Ferguson, Mo., Jeanina Jenkins, connected the strike with protests there, surrounding the police shooting of unarmed teenager Michael Brown: “We’re fighting for the same thing, basically.”

The decision to do “whatever it takes” and escalate to civil disobedience has been a long time coming. In May, fast food workers in the United States joined their counterparts in 30 other countries for a global strike. That day of action was the culmination of nearly two years of worker-led actions and legal campaigns, beginning with a Manhattan McDonald’s in 2012 and quickly spreading across the country. Arguably, fast food workers have been some of the most militant voices in the national campaign, which saw a major victory this spring when the Seattle City Council adopted a city-wide $15 minimum wage, to be phased in gradually over the next several years.

The strike wasn’t the summer’s only notable episode in the “Fight for 15.” Just days after the 15Now Conference, the National Labor Relations Board, or NLRB, declared McDonald’s liable for labor violations at its franchises as a “joint employer,” a move that will greatly ease the path towards unionization for millions of low-wage workers.

The NLRB decision has implications beyond the golden arches. In a statement lamenting the decision, Angelo Amador with the National Restaurant Association observed that it “overturns 30 years of established law regarding the franchise model in the United States.” At McDonald’s and similar chains, franchises have shielded major corporations from accountability to labor standards.

In addition to the law, the movement has changed the narrative around fast food work and low wage labor in general. Low-paying jobs have long been stereotyped as the province of middle-class teens looking for extra money to blow on the weekend. In reality, 40 percent of fast workers are over the age of 25, with 26 percent raising families. Sixty-eight percent are earning between $7.26 and $10.19, for an average yearly wage of $19,000 before taxes. While recent jobs reports have been promising, these numbers hide both sluggish wage raises as well as the underemployed and discouraged workers who’ve settled for typically low-wage part-time work in industries like fast food.

Fast food workers are showing a bold way forward for organized labor, and big business and big labor alike are paying attention. In an economy increasingly dependent on precarious labor, organizers should be redefining conceptions of work as much as neoliberalism has.