By WILLIAM WOOD
— CHICAGO — Despite a torrential downpour and thunderstorms, more than 2000 low-wage workers and supporters marched up 22nd St. in Oak Brook, Ill., to the McDonald’s national headquarters on May 25 to demand a $15 minimum wage and union rights. The company’s annual shareholders’ meeting was held there the following day.
Earlier, several hundred low-wage workers and supporters rallied outside Chicago’s Rock N’ Roll McDonald’s restaurant to kick off two days of protests. Many participants were striking McDonald’s workers.
This is the third straight year that a major Fight for $15 demonstration was held at a McDonald’s shareholders meeting. As they did last year, anticipating a large crowd of militant protesters, McDonald’s executives shut down the entire Oak Brook campus, telling employees to stay home for the day.
The action was organized by Fight for $15 groups around the country, and supported by Service Employees International Union (SEIU). Many workers came from the Chicago area, while buses brought others from cities around the country, including Milwaukee, St. Louis, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, Kansas City, Columbus, Ohio, Memphis, Tenn., and Little Rock, Ark.
Tyree Johnson, 48, a Chicago McDonald’s worker and Fight for $15 organizer, explained: “I’m living in poverty after 24 years.” He earned $4.25 when he took his job in 1992 and now makes only $10 an hour doing the same work he was assigned when he started.
Another participant was Shaun Goodwin, 38, from Little Rock, Ark. Goodwin, a McDonald’s worker for two years and making $8.50 per hour, told labor news website Progress Illinois: “We’re trying to get $15 and a union. Fifteen dollars is a livable wage.” Noting that a $15 minimum wage equals roughly $31,000 per year, which happens to be the average cost of keeping a federal inmate in prison for one year, he asked: “You’re saying I’m more valuable to the country incarcerated than I am working?”
Many low-wage workers from outside the fast-food industry attended the protest, and other supporters included contingents from SEIU, the United Steelworkers Union, the Chicago Teachers Union, American Federation of State County and Municipal Employees, and Black Lives Matter.
Antoinette Brown, 62, a janitor from St. Louis, works full time at minimum wage. She told the Chicago Tribune: “We really need to make more money. … My husband is disabled, and it’s hard to make it between his check and mine. … It shouldn’t be harder now when I’m 62.”
Despite the nasty weather, hundreds of low-wage workers continued their protest and camped out overnight in a “tent city” of about 200 tents outside McDonald’s headquarters. They held another rally there the following day as corporate executives and shareholders gathered for their annual meeting.
In response to pressure from past protests, McDonald’s made a slight change to its salary structure prior to its 2015 annual meeting, increasing wages for restaurant workers about $1. However, this change only applies to “company-owned” (non-franchise) restaurants. Ninety percent of McDonald’s stores are franchise-owned, so the vast majority of its employees did not benefit from even this token wage increase.
McDonald’s has claimed that they are not responsible for salaries of franchise-owned stores. However, the National Labor Relations Board has ruled otherwise, saying the corporate headquarters does have liability. A court case is pending on this issue, which may have an impact on unionization efforts and wage negotiations.
Eater.com, reporting on the discussion inside the shareholders’ meeting, said there was “much back-and-forth between shareholders arguing in favor of—and against—minimum wage increases.” Sriram Madhusoodanan, an activist with Corporate Accountability International, told the shareholders that McDonald’s “bankrolls the National Restaurant Association—the largest anti-worker lobby in the country” and “spends billions, all while miring workers in poverty.”
On the other hand, Justin Danhof, General Counsel for the National Center for Public Policy Research, representing one of its executives who is a McDonald’s shareholder, said McDonald’s shouldn’t support “individuals and organizations that would tax and regulate McDonald’s out of existence.”
Eater.com reported: “Danhof argued that the company ‘crowed about increasing wages’ at a shareholder meeting last year, but the [wage] increase [given in 2015] did nothing to deter protesters. … ‘Look—the barbarians are back at the gate demanding more. They saw it as a sign of weakness which they could exploit.’”
It’s clear that Fight for $15 organizing and mass protests are bringing pressure to bear on McDonald’s. Also, the movement has won some gains this year with statewide decisions to increase the minimum wage in New York and California. However, these decisions raise wages very gradually over multiple years, and include various opt-out provisions that could nullify future wage increases.
What’s necessary is an unequivocal call for $15 Now! Certainly, much more needs to be done to build a movement that can win. In addition to fast-food workers, the movement needs to continue to expand efforts nationally to draw in the wide range of other low-wage workers, including home-care and health-care workers, service industry workers, factory workers, airport ramp workers, logistics and warehouse workers, laborers, and a host of others. This involves uniting forces within the U.S. labor movement in an aggressive drive to unionize unorganized workers across a number of industries.
Photo: Fight for 15