Low-wage workers are walking off the job in almost 200 American cities on Thursday, barely two years after a far smaller group of fast food employees in New York City launched strikes demanding a $15 hourly wage and the right to form a union.
These are the largest strikes that the fast food industry has ever seen, according to a press release, expanding from the roughly 160 cities hit by walkouts in September to a full 191 cities on Thursday. Thursday’s actions are the ninth major coordinated day of strikes and protests since the campaign began.
As the campaign spread from New York fast food stores to nearly every corner of the country, it also jumped industrial divides. Overnight convenience store attendants kicked off the Thursday strike day by walking off the job in Detroit, St. Louis, and Kansas City. Airport workers in 10 cities including Boston, Fort Lauderdale, and Oakland are also joining the fray for the first time. Low-wage retail and home care workers continue to participate in a campaign that organizers have dubbed the “Fight for $15.”
That momentum has influenced state, local, and national politics, pushing working-class economic stagnation and corporate wage theft into the category of issues that politicians can’t ignore. It was key to driving minimum wage increase campaigns around the country over the past two years.
In Seattle, which was one of the earliest cities to see major strikes by fast food workers in 2013, the activist pressure helped push business leaders to the negotiating table by making a large minimum wage hike politically inevitable. City lawmakers enacted a record-high $15 hourly minimum wage law last spring after months of negotiations and compromise between commercial interests and workers’ representatives.
Workers in other places on this map have not seen such rapid returns from their risk-taking. In Washington, D.C., where low-wage service workers employed by federal contractors have been striking at places like the Pentagon, Union Station, and the Smithsonian museums for well over a year, progress has been far slower. These federally-contracted low-wage workers successfully persuaded President Obama to use his executive authority to raise the minimum wage that a federal contractor can pay, but only to $10.10 an hour. They have since raised their target to $15. The intricacies of federal contracting rules mean that the new wage rules don’t necessarily kick in immediately for people like Reginald Lewis and Tony Brawner.
The D.C. campaign’s experience underscores one of the key lessons that wealthy progressive entrepreneur Nick Hannauer learned from participating in the Seattle negotiations. “You shouldn’t be asking for 50 cents,” he told ThinkProgress in June. “You should be asking for five bucks. That gets people’s attention.”