By ANN MONTAGUE
In Richmond, Va., on Aug. 12-13, the new chapter of the Fight For 15 and a Union movement once again expanded its reach and broadened its scope. The first Fight For 15 and a Union Convention was called to bring together low-wage workers from across the country to energize the Fight For 15 and embark on a plan of uniting fast-food workers with 20 different industries—including not only home care, child care, and airport workers but also cell phone companies, truck companies, nail salons, and universities.
This movement of low-wage workers has grown like wildfire since the first Fast Food Strike on Nov. 29, 2012, when over 100 workers walked off the job in New York City. On April 4, 2013, over 200 went on strike in New York City, and every couple of weeks another city saw strikes, including Chicago, Detroit, St Louis, Milwaukee, and Seattle. On July 29 of that year, all those cities went on strike again—adding Flint and Kansas City. They went out again on Dec. 6.
On Sept. 4, 2014, another national strike took place in 150 cities. This time thousands of home-care workers showed up. The first actions of civil disobedience started at that time. Over 400 workers were arrested—including workers in Ferguson, Missouri and New York City—for protesting in solidarity with workers a month after the police shooting of Michael Brown. On Dec. 4, 2014, thousands of workers in 190 cities were joined by caregivers, airport workers, and workers at discount and convenient stores. The chant of “15 and a union” was joined with “Hands up, don’t shoot” and “I can’t breathe.” Black Lives Matter endorsed those strikes.
On April 15, 2015, tens of thousands of fast-food workers in more than 500 cities took to the streets in what has been described as the largest protest by low-wage workers in U.S. history.
The Richmond convention was the first time that workers who had been organizing and fighting for a minimum wage of $15 could really observe how diverse and widespread the movement has become in four years. One long-time rank-and-file activist from Oregon commented, “I was greatly impressed by the number of different industries represented at the convention as well as the diversity and youth of its participants. I don’t think I have ever been to such a large gathering with such a strong, militant, and justifiably angry tone.”
Terrance Wise, a McDonald’s worker and strike organizer in Kansas City, spoke about being part of labor history. “When we get up at 6:00 and prepare for another strike we are not doing anything new. Workers have done this before us and we always need to remember them. We are carrying on a tradition.” He also talked about the legacy of slavery and how the first minimum wage law and the right to organize exempted farm workers and people who worked in people’s homes. “This was not an accident, this was a decision, a decision to keep Black and Brown and Latino workers oppressed.”
Naquasia Le Grande, one of the fast-food workers in New York who went on the first strike in 2012, seemed to echo the same sentiments as Fight For 15 workers did this weekend about politicians. In an interview with The Progressive, she was asked what it meant to her when presidential candidates joined protests: “Let’s just say these candidates have a way of using their words to get what they want. We as fast-food workers reverse it on them. We are using our voice to get what we want. You are not going to get votes just because you are out here with us. That is why we do not endorse anybody.”
A resolution was passed to pressure all candidates in the upcoming elections on the $15 minimum wage issue. Also, the call went out for a National Day of Action at all state capitols on Sept. 12, as well as a call for direct action and demonstrations at all presidential debates. The participants called specifically for actions in the Southern states and “to win the right for all working people to unite in unions without fear of retaliation, and reverse the tide of anti-union attacks by corporate interests.” This was a call for a national mobilization in an election year that was aimed directly against the two capitalist parties.
In addition, there was a general call for mass fast-food strikes in Richmond (which happened before the march), aligned with the overall move towards organizing in the Southern states for 15 and a Union.
The highlight of the convention was the march on the second day. Richmond was selected as the site of the convention because it was the capital of the Confederacy and displays “the enduring effects of racist policies that are holding back low-paid workers of color today.”
The day started with McDonald’s workers walking off their jobs to find strong expressions of solidarity from the 8000 workers who marched under the banner of $15/Freedom/Union. The Rev. William Barber, president of the North Carolina NAACP, spoke under the shadow of the statue of Robert E. Lee to the marchers at the end of the march, “In the South there has been a strategy to play poor whites against Blacks and Latinos. What we are doing is coming together to say that won’t work any more. When we organize the South we will change the nation … it took 400 years to go from zero wage to 7.25. We cannot wait any longer.”
The clearest statement that defined the next stage of the Fight For 15 and a Union was from Lauralyn, a home-care worker in Richmond. “Both my parents were union workers,” she said. “They marched in Washington with Dr. King. The reason that we are in Richmond today is that it is the former capital of the Confederacy. A place where people were thought of as less. The work they did was thought of as less. We always did the grunt work for low wages.
“White babies drank from our breast, but we could not drink from their fountains. White families relied on us to care for their elderly parents, but we could not ride the bus with them. We cleaned their schools, but our children could not attend. We cooked their food, but we couldn’t sit at their table. Well now we say, ‘Enough is enough!’”