More than 1,000 low-wage workers from the fast food, retail, healthcare and delivery industries marched to McDonald's at 82 Court Street in Downtown Brooklyn before dawn this morning, chanting in the spitting rain for a $15 minimum wage and union representation—not just for fast food workers in New York State, but for all low-wage workers nationwide.

"Working part-time at UPS is like modern day slavery," said Kioma Forero, who made $11 an hour as a part-time employee before recently applying to be a UPS driver. "That's the only way I can describe it. You're unloading a truck, you're scanning boxes. And they want you to rush, and they want you to bust your ass."

Like many part-time low-wage workers, Forero struggled to accumulate enough hours each week to support herself. "Usually they only guarantee 3.5 hours a day... so technically you're not even looking at 20 hours a week," she said. "By the time payday come your money is spent. You literally have nothing."

"Employers can show that our lives matter by raising the wage to $15 and giving us a union," said Amber Graham, another low-wage worker. "Not next year, not in 2018, but today."


This morning's fast-food walkout coincides with sister walkouts in 270 cities across the country, and has been heralded on Twitter as the largest organized walkout in the Fight For $15 campaign's three year history.

The timing is strategic—exactly one year from today, voters will cast their ballots in the 2016 presidential election. According to the Fight For $15 organization, 64 million Americans are paid less than $15 per hour; a recent National Employment Law Project (NELP) survey found that almost 70% of unregistered voters would register to vote for a candidate who supported a $15 minimum wage and a union.

"These politicians need to take care of us before they take care of the stock brokers and wealthy people," Forero said. "We outnumber them, in my opinion."

"It was a good thing getting $15 across the state," said Jorel Ware. He's been working 40 hour weeks at McDonald's on 42nd Street for going on three years, and makes the city mandated minimum wage of $8.75. With a raise, he says, he'd likely be able to move out of his parents house and get off food stamps.

"But the whole United States needs $15," he added. "We're bringing it to the polls. If you're going to be president, you're going to be for Black Lives Matter issues, you're going to be for police reform… because it has to do with black and brown people and living in poverty—it all comes together."

New York's fast food workers have been organizing around Fight for $15 for more than two years, with significant help from the SEIU, the country's largest service workers union. Governor Cuomo's decision to form a Fast Food Wage Board followed on the heels of large-scale protests across the country this spring, including a march through Manhattan on tax day that drew an estimated 15,000 workers.

In July, Cuomo's Wage Board voted unanimously in favor of raising the minimum wage for fast food workers to $15, but in phases: By December 31, 2018 in New York City, and by July 1, 2021 in the rest of New York State.

In September, Cuomo voiced his support for a $15 minimum wage statewide. And Mayor de Blasio testified over the summer that, "As much as fast food workers deserve a raise... we all must do more to ensure that every worker gets a living wage."

The hike is opposed by business groups, who claim employers will cut hours and lay off employees to afford paying wages. An April report by NYC Comptroller Scott Stringer counters that the hike could help small businesses attract and retain better employees.

Many attendees at this morning's walkout argued that union representation is just as important as a living wage. "Fifteen is great, but you need a union as well to push the issues," said Jamal Tabar. He's been working at the McDonald's at 56th Street and 8th Avenue for two years, and struggles to support his two young daughters. "A union would help protect us—scheduling, hours, stuff like that."

Multiple campaigners offered this reporter Bernie Sanders literature over the course of the hour long protest, and Megan Conyers, a gift shop employee who makes $9 per hour, said that she backs Sanders for "the fact that he wants to have a union." To date, Sanders has earned the official endorsement of only one labor union—National Nurses United. Hillary Clinton, meanwhile, has reportedly racked up endorsements from unions representing more than half of the country's 14.6 million unionized workers.

Holy Perez is 19 years old and lives in East Harlem. She has been working at the McDonald's at 51st Street for almost two years, and told us that she often can't afford a MetroCard. Instead, she'll ask for a spare swipe at the station. Without union representation, "We get fired for so many little things," she said. "Drinking out of a big cup, or buying food when it's not your lunch hour."

Asked if she has a candidate in mind for 2016, Perez shook her head. "Right now no one has my vote. Because why would I vote for somebody who doesn't take up interest for the needs of the minority?" she said. "Give me a reason to vote for you."

Fight for $15 is hosting two more actions in New York City today. Eric Garner's mother and other Black Lives Matter advocates will join low-wage workers at 11:00 a.m. at the McDonald's at 125th Street and Adam Clayton Powell Boulevard in Harlem. At 4:00 p.m., thousands of protestors are expected to gather for a march at Foley Square near the corner of Lafayette Avenue and Duane Street.