DETROIT — Some 1,300 low-wage fast-food workers have come from around the country for the second “Fight for $15″ convention. There’s a victorious buzz in the air, though most of these line cooks and cashiers are new to the labor movement. They are largely Latino and African American, organized by community groups and the Service Employees International Union, and drawn from every imaginable franchise — McDonald’s, Dunkin’ Donuts, Wendy’s, Subway, Arby’s and regional chains like Hardee’s. The workers still want what they first demanded in the strikes in 2012: $15 per hour and a union.
Fifteen dollars seemed unattainable then, but much has changed. On Friday, New York state convened its wage board to consider raising minimum hourly pay for fast-food workers, and St. Louis was set to introduce a proposal for phasing in $15 across the board. Last week, Los Angeles passed a $15 minimum wage to take effect by 2020, following the lead of San Francisco, Seattle and Sea-Tac, Washington.
“Two years ago, wage inequality was not even being mentioned. Now, there’s talk of how all workers need benefits and a raise, and the benefits of joining a union,” said Terrance Wise, an employee of McDonald’s and Burger King locations in Kansas City and an oft-profiled member of the Fight For 15’s national leadership committee. He has helped coordinate seven strikes in Kansas City and came by bus to downtown Detroit with 150 fellow workers.
A full-time employee paid the federal minimum wage of $7.25 lives just above the federal poverty level, which many argue is itself an outdated measure of wellness. According to a 2013 study by the UC Berkeley Labor Center, more than half of the households supported by front-line fast-food workers rely on public benefits, including Medicaid and food stamps. This, many economists say, is effectively a subsidy to corporations like McDonald’s, which reported nearly $5 billion in profits last year and has been condemned for pushing employees to apply for government assistance.