Hundreds of striking fast food workers and their supporters were arrested Thursday while protesting to demand higher wages and the right to unionize, strike organizers say. Workers walked off the job in 159 different cities on what was at least the 10th day of strikes in the 21 months since the campaign for a $15 hourly wage and full labor rights began in New York City just after Thanksgiving 2012.
The arrests were scattered around the country and included 50 in Chicago, 42 in Detroit, 11 in Little Rock, 10 in Las Vegas, and 52 in Kansas City, according to a partial list provided by organizers. Police in Detroit reportedly ran out of handcuffs at one point while arresting peaceful strikers who were blocking traffic during their demonstration. Rep. Gwen Moore (D-WI) was among the 25 workers and supporters arrested in Milwaukee, and several other members of the House Progressive Caucus joined worker actions in various cities. Moore said she was given a $691 ticket for disorderly conduct after she and other protesters defused to clear the road they were blocking.
With 159 cities striking on Thursday, fast food workers have approximately doubled the size of the battlefield over the past year. Strikes hit 60 cities in August 2013, the first day to see strikes in a double-digit number of cities. A December strike day featured 100 cities, and about 150 cities saw walkouts in May. Over the nearly two years since the campaign began, the strikes have leaped from New York and other northern cities to every corner of the continental U.S.
But beyond the geographic spread, Thursday’s strikes are the first example of a tactical escalation that workers and organizers promised at a convention earlier this summer. A July gathering of more than 1,300 fast food workers produced a resolution to begin using civil disobedience and nonviolent protest to advance their cause.
“We had over 100 people arrested, but however they respected every police officer,” Rev. W. J. Rideout told Detroit’s ABC affiliate WXYZ on Thursday. “And we also chanted, ‘Police need a raise also.’ EMS need a raise, firefighters need a raise. So we’re not against anyone here, we’re against the corporations, we’re against McDonald’s.”
McDonald’s was recently found to be responsible for its workers’ treatment by the National Labor Relations Board. That might sound obvious, but for decades the fast food industry has used franchise agreements to shrug off legal liability for labor violations by the owner-operators who run the vast majority of fast food chain stores. That legal facade crumbled this summer after workers’ attorneys presented evidence that McDonald’s is responsible for setting the rules that lead store owners to commit wage theft by falsifying time sheets, forcing people to work off the clock, and requiring workers to pay for their own uniform upkeep, among other widespread company practices.
The unrelenting worker pressure on the ground and the gradual shift in how labor regulators treat the fast food business model could make it difficult for these companies to maintain the status quo for much longer. At present, CEOs are paid 1,200 times more than workers in the industry. Frontline fast food workers — the vast majority of whom are adults, many with families to support — earn poverty wages that require them to turn to public assistance programs to survive despite having a job. This taxpayer subsidy of low fast food wages costs the American public well over a billion dollars a year (and when accounting for similar dynamics in other low-wage industries, the cost is closer to a quarter-trillion dollars). Worse, even those meager wages often don’t get paid properly. Nine out of 10 fast food workers reports being victimized by some form of wage theft.