By Dustin Slaughter
“Hold the burgers! Hold the fries! We want our wages super-sized!”
Spring-like weather filled the air today, bringing with it a robust and rather militant working class presence to Center City in the form of street marches, speeches, and even direct actions inside national chains including a McDonald’s restaurant, a CVS pharmacy, and other stores. There were no arrests.
Approximately 40 people affiliated with 15 Now Philly, Fight for 15, and Socialist Alternative Philadelphia held an inaugural rally at 10th and Market Streets on International Women’s Day to demand a minimum wage increase to $15 an hour amid car honks and cheers in support of the action. Some passerby expressed skepticism too.
“Do you really think it’s possible?” asked a pedestrian to a rally participant.
The woman replied: “We won’t know unless we try.”
In keeping with the day’s internationally-heralded theme, speakers pointed out that 67% of poverty-stricken families in Philadelphia are female-led, single parent households. Two-thirds of all minimum wage workers in Pennsylvania are women, according to a recent National Women’s Law Center study.
These economic and social realities brought out single mothers like Robyn Richardson, who told me:
“I’m gonna fight until we have $15 and a union. Not just $15 and then they cut our hours.”
Richardson is an employee at sandwich chain Jimmy John’s and is only earning $8 an hour. She’s also a self-described first-time activist.
Quinn Dougherty, a Home Depot employee, stated with bullhorn in hand:
Minimum wage is an issue for women. It is an issue for people of color. And it is an issue for immigrants.
The 15 Now Campaign‘s epicenter is currently in Washington State. SeaTac, a small town outside of Seattle, passed a ballot initiative that raised the minimum wage to $15 per hour. Councilperson Kshama Sawant, a Socialist, is currently leading the legislative charge for a statewide increase of the same.
Bloomberg News published an article earlier this month detailing how Washington, with the nation’s highest minimum wage – currently at $9.32 per hour – is also reporting more job growth than any other state.
As Gary Burtless, an economist at Brookings Institution and former U.S. Labor Department employee told Bloomberg:
It’s hard to see that the state of Washington has paid a heavy [economic] penalty for having a higher minimum wage than the rest of the country.
Today’s rally split up into several groups and proceeded to march to different locations, enter, and then “mic-check” (a tactic reminiscent of the Occupy movement) employees and patrons, denouncing what can only be described as exorbitant CEO pay while encouraging employees to unionize against gross income disparity.
A store manager rushed to stop the approximately five-minute long protest, but then eased off and stood to the side with crossed arms.
Activists who participated in a similar direct action inside a nearby McDonald’s described with consternation three armed security guards at their location.
While the Civil Affairs Unit, an intelligence-gathering arm of the Philadelphia Police Department, were on scene, private security presence was much heavier, including at a K-Mart that wasn’t occupied by activists.
It was apparent that security was tipped off well in advance of the protests, a clear indication of the now commonplace – and close – relationship between law enforcement and the private sector in monitoring First Amendment-protected activity.
Organizers I spoke to were pleasantly surprised with the event’s turnout, and felt invigorated for future events in 2014.
Growing support from politicians for a federal wage increase of $10.10 an hour include President Obama, but there is also local support from state senators such as Bob Casey.
Despite this group’s more ambitious call for $15, the timing of today’s movement kickoff here couldn’t be more timely.