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Meet The Workers Walking Off The Job In The Biggest Low-Wage Strike Yet

A Burger King employee protesting for higher wages in 2015 CREDIT: AP PHOTO/DAVID GOLDMAN
A Burger King employee protesting for higher wages in 2015 CREDIT: AP PHOTO/DAVID GOLDMAN

On Thursday, low-wage workers across a number of industries walked off the job in a record 320 cities as part of the latest action from the Fight for 15 movement demanding a $15 minimum wage and the right to form unions.

Workers from the fast food industry — who have been staging increasingly large strikes over the last three years — will be joined by employees from other sectors. The movement that started in New York with McDonald’s and Burger King employees has now spread across the country to include child care workers, nursing home assistants, adjunct professors, and even Boston-area airport workers. It will also coincide with the second day of a strike staged by nearly 40,000 Verizon workers.

Thursday’s actions will include hospital workers at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center (UPMC), who will strike for the first time to demand a union and an end to what they say are the university’s harassment and discrimination against those who have been working to form one, charges that have been backed up by the National Labor Relations Board. That will include Nila Payton, a single mother of two sons, who will be walking off her job for the first time in her ten years with the hospital.

“I’m striking for their future,” she told ThinkProgress, speaking of her sons, ages two and 16. UPMC has already announced it will raise its base pay to $15 an hour by 2021, but Payton wants to see that hit sooner and to see the company address other issues facing her and her coworkers. Fifteen dollars an hour “can make a difference, but that just barely scratches the surface,” she said. “We can’t afford health care, our benefits.”

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She knows this firsthand. She recently got a promotion and a raise to just over $15 an hour. But that wouldn’t have saved her if she had had to pay her $150 copay for visiting the emergency room with her two-year-old son this past weekend under her employer’s health insurance plan. Instead, she breathed a small sigh of relief because he’s covered by the Children’s Health Insurance Program. “I would have come out $150 I don’t really have,” she said, and have to “decide whether to pay the utility bills or buy food for the family.”

Things were incredibly tight before her raise. “Once my paycheck was exhausted by bills, I barely had enough to buy food, feed my family,” she said. She frequents second-hand stores just to afford clothes for her sons. That left her no room to do fun outings with them. “It would be nice if I could take them out… I couldn’t even really go to the zoo with my family,” she said. “Either $60 to go to the zoo or $60 for the light bill.”

She thinks the strike on Thursday will send a powerful message to her employer, though. “Standing together can make a change,” she said. Speaking of the $15 minimum wage the company announced, she added, “We were able to do that without a union. Imagine what we can do with one.”

Fast food workers have also experienced their own string of victories since staging the first strike in New York City in 2012. Both California and New York have passed legislation that will eventually mandate a $15 minimum wage. Meanwhile, according to a new analysis from the National Employment Law Project, nearly 17 million workers have gotten a raise since the first fast food strikes through city and state legislative increases, executive orders, and actions from individual companies. Nearly 60 percent are on the path to getting at least $15 an hour.

Adriana Alvarez, a Chicago McDonald’s worker and single mom who will also be on strike on Thursday, is still waiting for her $15 wage. She currently makes $10.50 after the company decided to give everyone a 10-cent raise after they had gone two years without any increase. She also notes that the city raised its minimum wage to $13 an hour.

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But she wants the $15 wage for her and her coworkers. “It better come to Chicago,” she told ThinkProgress. “New York was the first city to go on strike, and then it was Chicago. We’re sitting here waiting.”

Things are difficult for her and her young son. “I’m living paycheck to paycheck, just waiting on payday because my son needs this or he needs that,” she said. One of the biggest expenses is daycare, which used to cost her just $46 a month thanks to government programs, programs that have been slashed due to state budget fights. Now she pays $125 a week. “I don’t have anybody to watch him, he has to be in daycare while I work,” she said. “It’s really stressful.”

And it leaves very little extra room. “I don’t get myself any luxuries. No taking my kid to the movies, there’s no museums,” she said. “What other people could take for granted.”