Fast food workers from across the nation gathered at a national convention in Illinois over the weekend to brainstorm ways to amp up their call for a $15 hourly wage and union representation. Progress Illinois was there for the two-day event.
Fast food workers involved with the growing “Fight For 15” movement vowed to escalate their future actions at a convention held over the weekend. The Villa Park event drew some 1,300 workers from across the country and was held a short distance away from the spot where 138 protesters were arrested for civil disobedience during the annual McDonald’s shareholder meeting in May. Throughout the convention, organizers leaned heavily on the history and tactics of the civil rights movement as a teaching tool for fast food workers looking win their battle for a $15 hourly wage and union representation.
“I’m deeply rooted in the civil rights movement,” said Joshua Collins, a 24 year-old Burger King worker from Atlanta, Georgia. Collins, who has worked for the fast food chain for two years making $7.25 an hour – the minimum wage in Georgia – said his two children inspired him to attend the convention.
“I think that civil rights gave us a voice and a platform to stand on so we can speak. It was hard taking care of my one (child). Now with a newborn, I can’t even pay bills on just that one check. I want the corporations to recognize that we’re serious and we’ll get that $15 by any means necessary.”
Civil disobedience was a major topic of discussion throughout the weekend, and convention attendees watched several videos highlighting both movements of the past and recent footage of the national rallies and strikes that have taken place since the Fight for $15 movement began two years ago. Some also spoke about their own arrests at the McDonald’s shareholder meeting, and keynote speakers leaned heavily on the history of doing whatever it takes.
“If you believe in civil rights, you have to believe in labor rights,” said the Reverend William Barber II in a rousing speech to the assembled workers on Saturday. In his speech, Barber, who spearheaded the Moral Monday movement in North Carolina, compared the struggle of minimum wage workers to the struggles of other marginalized groups that have fought for their causes.
“The denial of living wages, the denial of public education, the denial of voting rights, the denial of women’s rights, the denial of LGBT rights are all a part of one movement. We must stand together and say when you deny fundamental rights to human beings in America it is morally indefensible, it is constitutionally inconsistent and it is economically insane,” said Barber.
Here’s more from Barber:
In small group discussion sessions, convention attendees were asked to reflect on several questions about ways they can take lessons from the civil rights movement and apply them to the Fight for $15. At a table full of McDonald’s workers, the resounding sentiment was the need to overcome fear.
“If you tell the manager you’re tired of making a certain amount, you might get your hours cut,” Shjuan Cage, a 30 year -ld from Indianapolis told his group. Ashona Osborne, a 22 year-old from Pittsburgh said dispelling the myth that only teenagers work in fast food for disposable income is also important. “No, I’ve got bills to pay,” she said.
Using what they learned from past civil rights leaders and creating a sense of unity between workers in order to push their agenda forward is important to those that attended the convention. Shamisha, a fast food worker from Richmond, California said, “We can learn from our ancestors, Martin Luther King, Rosa Parks, they refused to give up. That’s what we have to do.”
Mary Coleman, a Popeye’s worker from Milwaukee, Wisconsin, says the group needs to hold a nationwide sit in as a means to keep the pressure on low-wage employers.
“Everybody across the nation, all fast food workers, retail workers, we pick a time, pick a date and everybody just stops,” said Coleman.
Here’s more from the convention:
The group also received a pledge of support from the Service Employees International Union (SEIU). Addressing the crowd on Friday night, SEIU* President Mary Kay Henry said “I am proud to bring to this room two million SEIU members who are in it to win it with you.”
Henry went on to thank all those involved with the movement.
“Six-point-seven million workers in the U.S. have already had their wages increase because of the fight you have led for the past 21 months,” she said. “By going on strike, you have forced our elected representatives to stop ignoring fast food workers all across our nation. By speaking out, you are teaching the American public that fast food is one of the country’s fastest growing jobs, but doesn’t pay enough to raise a family on, and you can’t even afford basic needs,” said Henry.
Indeed, many of the workers in attendance said their involvement in the movement, which has helped bring the demands of low-wage workers to the national spotlight, was due to the fact that they don’t earn enough to support their families.
“I have to budget every dollar, every penny,” said Melinda Topel, a 43 year-old McDonald’s employee with six children. Topel, who was arrested at the protest at McDonald’s corporate headquarters in May, said she has to rely on social services like food stamps and clothing pantries to supplement her $7.50 an hour income.
Workers like Topel voted unanimously to pass a resolution near the end of the convention vowing to “do whatever it takes” for a $15 an hour wage floor for fast food workers, the freedom to unionize without retaliation, to strike when necessary, and to “step up our campaign to build a better future.”
“It’s worth it, I believe in what we’re fighting for,” said Topel. “It’s a fight that I’m going to continue until we get what we deserve. If I don’t stand up and say what I believe in, fight for what is right, it’s not going to change.”
* The SEIU Illinois Council sponsors this website.