Fast food workers in 150 cities went on strike today to fight for increased wages and the right to unionize. In Manhattan, protesters marched outside two McDonald's locations, in Times Square and on 8th Avenue and 56th street, and committed civil disobedience by sitting in intersections and blocking traffic. There were over 1,000 marchers in NYC, and organizers said 34 workers were peacefully arrested. (An NYPD spokesperson confirmed the arrest total; all were charged with disorderly conduct.)
American fast food workers make an average of $8.74 an hour, CNNMoney reports. That comes to $18,000 a year, below the national poverty level. Jorel Ware works at the McDonald's on 8th Avenue and 56th Street, where the strike took place. Today he came to this block, not to go to work, but to be arrested.
"When I was 14, I worked for the Boys Club for the summer for minimum wage," he said. "But I would never dream of being 31 and still making minimum wage. How can you look your kids in the eye and say, 'Oh I can't buy you these sneakers.' Or, 'I have to go somewhere else to get this, because the money I make, even though I work full time, isn't enough.' Why can't I afford these things if I work full time? I don't understand. Actually, I do understand. I'm trying to make the billion dollar company across the street understand."
Protesters believe their civil disobedience is meant to signal how seriously they're taking the issue. Akeen Bey, a McDonald's worker in the Bronx, said they're going to do whatever it takes, for however long it takes. "Those people are really brave," he said, indicating his fellow demonstrators. Bey said if he made $15 an hour, he would financially support his mom, buy food for his siblings and be able to buy an unlimited MetroCard to go to school.
The fight for a higher wage has intensified since 2012, when fast food workers held their first strike in New York. Since then, President Obama has voiced his support for minimum wage unions, and some cities, like Seattle, have legislatively raised wages to $15 an hour.
Today's protest was fueled by another recent victory: The National Labor Board Relations ruled in July that McDonald's is liable for wage theft that happens, even at its franchises. Catherine Ruetschlin, a senior policy analyst at Demos who has spent her career studying labor policy, said the ruling means McDonald's is responsible for how wages are paid too.
McDonald's has previously sidestepped the wage conversation by saying that they don't control what their franchises do, or how they spend money. In a statement to Gothamist, McDonald's said, "It's important to know approximately 90% of our U.S. restaurants are independently owned and operated by small to mid-sized business owners who set wages according to local and federal laws and also based upon job level. McDonald's does not determine wages set by our more than 3,000 U.S. franchisees."
Ruetschlin said that McDonald's HQ holds the reigns more tightly than they let on, pointing out that McDonald's sets the rent and the franchise fees that each independent McDonald's owes. McDonald's also mandates capital investments, staffing levels and tell franchisees how to spend all of the dollar investments in the company.
"When you have an equation like that and the wage is the only X factor in the equation, that number is set by the numbers around it," Ruetschlin said. "There's a lot of give there, that could be recalibrated to provide a greater investment in the workforce." Ruetschlin said the idea is to invest in human capital rather than looking at labor as a cost to be minimized.
Shantel Walker has worked at a Papa Johns on Broadway in Brooklyn since 1999. She said her wage is only at $8.50 an hour. "It's 2014, and this is the best that they can do for me?" She said. "I think it's a disgrace and a disgust. Right now, my money goes but so far. I'm trying to do different things. I want to go back to school. It's a struggle, that's why we're out here. And it's not just us. It's people around the world going through the same thing and it has to stop today."
If she made $15 an hour, she said her life would change.
"I want to live a decent life. And I want to be with a union. That’s it. Fifteen dollars and a union."