MANCHESTER, NH — Out of the snowy darkness came a line of fast-food workers, marching towards the site of the latest Republican debate. With beanies pulled over their ears and gloved hands holding protest signs, the workers, their families, and their supporters chanted, “You want our vote? Come get our vote.”
A record-breaking half-million New Hampshire voters are expected to go to the polls Tuesday to pick the nominees for the Republican and Democratic parties. The remaining White House hopefuls in both parties have descended on the Granite State, holding dozens of town halls, rallies, and debates each day to win over the state’s undecided voters, who have grilled them on their plans to address drug addiction, immigration, and the minimum wage.
Among the hundreds of low-wage workers protesting the Republican debate at St. Anselm College was 26-year-old New Hampshire native Megan Jensen, who walked off her job at KFC to join the crowd demanding a higher minimum wage.
“I share an apartment with a roommate and my three kids, who are ages 4, 2, and 10 months,” she told ThinkProgress. “It’s very hard to get by on $8 an hour. I have to use food stamps and subsidized health insurance to get by. If I got a raise, I’d be able to get my own place. I’d be able to support all three kids by myself without any help from the state or anybody.”
The strike was organized by the national Fight for 15 movement, which has used marches and walkouts outside previous presidential debates to draw attention to their demands for raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour.
Though many states have voted to raise their minimum wages significantly over the past few years, New Hampshire has gone in the other direction. In 2011, the Republican-controlled legislature voted to repeal the state’s minimum wage, giving workers the federal minimum of $7.25 an hour.
CREDIT: Alice Ollstein
During Saturday night’s debate, the only candidate to touch on the issue of wages was Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL), who noted that while it’s impossible to survive on the current federal minimum, he doesn’t support raising it.
“We have an economy today, an economy today that is not creating jobs that pay enough,” he said. “The solution to the problems we have today…is to lower our taxes on both people and on companies, so we can make America globally competitive again.”
In past campaign visits to New Hampshire, Rubio has said even a wage of $10 or $11 an hour is not enough to get by. Yet in 2014 he voted against a Senate bill raising the minimum wage to $10.10 an hour and criticized President Obama’s more modest proposal of $9 an hour.
Other Republican candidates vying for New Hampshire’s votes, including current frontrunner Donald Trump and Dr. Ben Carson, have also ruled out a raise in the federal minimum wage. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie vetoed an increase in his state. Carly Fiorina and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush have gone even further and called for the abolition of the minimum wage altogether.
For first-time voters like Jensen and many of the other striking workers, the election comes down to which candidate best represents them on this issue.
“I’ve never voted ever in my life,” she told ThinkProgress. “I never thought it affected me much. When I was getting brought up I was never really told the difference between Republicans and Democrats or any of that stuff. But now that I’ve been learning more, I think that the more people vote, the better the outcome will be.”
Jensen and the other workers gathered inside a barricaded “free speech zone” outside the debate hall Saturday night. All around them, supporters of various Republican candidates waved banners and chanted their names and slogans. At one point, supporters of Marco Rubio took offense to the workers’ message, and tried to drown them out by repeatedly screaming, “Free market.”
— Alice Ollstein (@AliceOllstein) February 6, 2016
Watching the yelling match that broke out between the two groups, striking home health care worker Mamadu Bah sighed. “Sooner or later, someone will have to take care of them, and of the Republican candidates,” he said. “How would they feel if their caretaker were always distracted by thinking about finding another job because they don’t get paid enough? I think they want someone who will treat them well and focus on them instead of worrying about their own life. And I think people who are paid well are more likely to work better.”
Bah, who has lived in New Hampshire for 14 years, works at a group home for disabled children. “We clothe them, take them to school and back. It’s like having your own child,” he said. While he makes well above minimum wage, he sees his fellow workers and his own mother struggle to get by. “[The cost of] everything else is inflating, food, shelter, but the minimum wage stays the same,” he said. “Fifteen an hour sounds like a lot, but it’s not in this economy. So whoever agrees with a $15 minimum wage, they will be my candidate.”
The workers were joined by a crowd of students and activists from across New England who support their cause, wanting to make a show of force to convince the Republican candidates to shift their views.
“I want the Republicans to think about how much of their electorate, the rural voters in Appalachia and in the South, make below $15 an hour, and how much a raise would improve their standard of living,” Harvard student Uriel Espinoza told ThinkProgress. “And we want the people out here to realize that the Republican Party is not the one truly fighting for them to have a better standard of living.”