Philly Fast Food Workers Strike 9/3 (A Report)

It was hot in Philadelphia on this Thursday afternoon, the day of the second major nationwide fast food workers strike. The air was moist and the effort taxing, but the tough conditions did not stop workers, allied organizations, and supporters from shutting down a broad swath of center city traffic to draw attention their their demands: a citywide $15/hr. minimum wage and the right to form a union. 

The crowd of around 150 gathered at a McDonald's on North Broad Street, which if you are not familiar with Philadelphia urban geography stretches directly north from City Hall, to rally before marching south to another McDonald's location at the corner of 10th & Arch Sts. Many organizations showed up to stand in solidarity with fast food workers nationwide call to action including, but not limited to, SEIU Healthcare PA, CWA local 1300, the Green Party, Clergymen, and several Socialist groups including 15Now, Phight for 15, and the DSA. I even ran into a self-professed Republican proud to show his support. 

Several workers spoke out including Sonia*, a mother who works two jobs who decided to strike today. She came to this decision because she said that she cannot afford her rent and enough food for her family. Jesse, another striking worker, proclaimed that he decided to participate because he believes that a $15/hr. minimum wage and a union are "fair and just" demands." "This is serious business," he went on to say "because you can't tell the landlord that you don't have enough money."

Justin, a volunteer organizer with 15Now and President of CWA Local 13000, told me that he and his Local showed up because they believe that the growing movement of restaurant industry workers is "a fight for all workers." He continued, "Fifteen dollars an hour is the bare minimum to provide for a family. I'm here to help the workers organize their own power in an offensive against the bosses." 

While this brouhaha raged outside I decided to go in to the McDonald's to ask the workers still on duty what they thought. As I approached the counter I was asked by a tense looking gentleman if he could help me. I told him who I was, who I represented, and that I just wanted to ask if any of the workers had an opinion. I figured they did since they were gathered around the counter like they were watching history unfold on a wall sized screen. He directed me to the manager who told me that he didn't have an opinion. He further directed me to another man who turned out to be the designated liaison from a PR agency (Tierney) who was hired by McDonald's to keep the workers silent. He told me that the inside of the restaurant was private property and that I was not allowed to ask questions inside. He took my email and assured me that he would email a statement from McDonald's. The statement (printed below for your enjoyment [1]) attempted to redirect the conversation away from the justice of a raised minimum wage to the effect on the business owner. They even tried to blame Obamacare! 

Anyhoo, back to the action. 

As the peaceful march proceeded down Broad Street drums echoed off the buildings from a local youth drumline demanding that the protesters be heard. Directly in front of them a woman danced with her children in the street, proud to be representing their future. Chants also rang off of buildings and in the ears of passer-bys such as "We shall not be moved"; "The workers, united, will never be defeated"; "Can't survive on 7.25!"; and a call and response:

"What do we want?!" 

"15 and a Union!" 

"When do we want it?!"

"Now!"

Despite the large police presence the crowd remained peaceful. Upon arrival at the second McDonald's location another rally was set up that lasted around a half an hour. As it died down a local priest made a request for folks to sit down in the street. Traffic was blocked going west on Arch, which (again if you are not from Philadelphia) is a pretty busy intersection around noontime. Keeping the energy up was an older man with a guitar. He sang a few traditional labor movement songs including "This Little Light Of Mine", "We Shall Not Be Moved", and "Solidarity Forever". While these timeless anthems did not ring with the same potency of some performances (everyone was hot and tired by this point) they did provide a certain sense of historical continuity with movements past. Also providing a sense of continuum was the police response. While they were not violent they did end up arresting 11 people including striking workers, supporters, and even a local Union President.

I spoke to Officer Steve Glenn, the Captain of the Civil Affairs Unit, afterwards and he told me that the protestors were arrested for obstructing a highway, a summary offense which would result in immediate release with a citation, provided that they were carrying IDs, for complying with police action. What they didn't say was that they had posted a little more than a half dozen mounted police around the corner. "Well, that's a bit much," I thought.  

By the end of the action the crowd was less energetic because they had spent the better part of two hours chanting, marching, singing, dancing, drumming, and sitting down to take a stand for justice. As the protestors were taken away via police bus (!) the crowd dissipated to fight another day. The irony of this action is that just one block away a newly renovated Dilworth Plaza, one of the concrete parks surrounding City Hall, was being unveiled and celebrated with colorful balloons, drum circles, and shiny new program pamphlets. What's so ironic about that? Three years ago Dilworth Plaza was the camp site of Occupy Philly, an offshoot of Occupy Wall Street--the Populist uprising that in some ways ignited the current fires of dialogue surrounding economic equality in the US, until it was dismantled to construct this new 1% playground that now occupies the space. While Mayor Michael Nutter was congratulating himself on a job well done (in his mind anyway) 11 protestors were being hauled off in a bus usually reserved for criminals. Why? Because, by their own admission, they can't make enough money to feed and clothe their families. What are Philadelphia's priorities? 

 

*Names have been changed to protect identities

[1] At McDonald’s we respect everyone’s rights to peacefully protest.  The topic of minimum wage goes well beyond McDonald’s- it affects our country’s entire workforce. McDonald’s and our independent franchisees support paying our valued employees fair wages aligned with a competitive marketplace. We believe that any minimum wage increase should be implemented over time so that the impact on owners of small and medium-sized businesses – like the ones who own and operate the majority of our restaurants – is manageable.  Additionally, we believe that any increase needs to be considered in a broad context, one that considers, for example, the impact of the Affordable Care Act and its definition of “full time” employment, as well as the treatment, from a tax perspective, of investments made by businesses owners.

It’s important to know approximately 90% of our U.S. restaurants are independently owned and operated by franchisees who set wages according to job level and local and federal laws. McDonald’s does not determine wages set by our more than 3,000 U.S. franchisees.  - McDonald's Corporation