By Piper Wheeler
This Wednesday, Bay Area workers and activists plan to take to the streets as part of a worldwide mobilization of low-wage workers demanding higher pay.
Fight for 15, a national organization launched in 2012 and funded by major labor unions, is calling for a federal minimum wage of $15 an hour. Organizers say this week’s protests will be their largest action to date — and, they claim, perhaps the most widespread workers’ protest in U.S. history. Over 200 U.S. cities will see strikes and workers’ rallies, while sympathetic actions will occur on six continents.
Across the Bay Area, fast-food workers are preparing to walk off the job to protest low wages. These workers will form the heart of rallies and marches in Oakland and Berkeley that will also include home-care and childcare providers, industrial laundry, airport and Walmart workers.
Organizers chose April 15, Tax Day, to publicize their claim that corporations whose employees take home less than a living wage are effectively subsidized by taxpayers, since low-wage workers often rely on federal and state benefits like food stamps to make ends meet. In fact, research from UC Berkeley’s Labor Center states that low wages cost U.S. taxpayers $152.8 billion each year in public support for working families.
Noesha McGehee, who works at an East Bay McDonald’s, doesn’t hesitate when asked what her demands are: “We want 15 and a union for all workers,” she said. McGehee, a graduate of Berkeley High, first-year student at Cal State Hayward, and Fight for 15 member since 2013, is excited for Wednesday’s strike — not her first — and says it means a lot to see more people support the movement. “I want to get all the voices heard,” she said.
For the first time this Wednesday, those voices will include adjunct faculty and other contingent academic workers, who say they are paid poverty wages despite holding advanced degrees. Rallies are planned for universities across the country, including UC Berkeley, with students lending support to the workers’ demands. Many of their own instructors, student activists say, have seen wages and benefits dwindle, even while tuition costs have increased by 1,120% since 1982, according to a 2012 Bloomberg report.
Jac Asher, an adjunct professor in UC Berkeley’s Gender and Women’s Studies program and a member of the Emeryville City Council, which is working to raise that city’s minimum wage, said that cooperation between low-wage workers and academic laborers is “a natural partnership.”
Insecure and low-paid academic labor is “often invisible to students, and the public assumes that a professorship is a white-collar, well-paid job,” Asher said. But, she continued: “Especially in the Bay Area, it’s impossible [for the typical adjunct] to string together enough work” to make ends meet. “I feel that the national conversation is changing, and folks that are the working poor might be more confident in speaking out.”
Now entering its third year, the nationwide campaign for higher wages began in New York City. It has centered upon the rights of cooks and cashiers in the fast-food industry. With community organizers paid by the Service Employees’ International Union (SEIU), the campaign for higher wages is at once a top-down affair coordinated by union leadership, as well as a grassroots effort.
At her own workplace, McGehee was one of the first to sign the green cards distributed by union organizers during the employees’ breaks. “People who’d been there for ten, 20 years, and had known the managers all that time, were kind of scared” to join, she said.
First the younger employees signed, and now the bulk of workers show up for the campaign’s Thursday meetings. “Everyone supports it, but we’re still trying to educate people and get them involved,” she said.
McGehee notes that the campaign has given her and her co-workers a huge boost of confidence. “It’s really opened my eyes about my rights, about what [management] can and cannot do,” she said, making the case that dignity and knowledge might be a first step toward demanding higher wages.
Tomorrow’s protests will begin with a gathering at the 24th and Mission BART station in San Francisco at 6 a.m.
Here in the East Bay, strikers and their supporters will hold actions at fast-food restaurants beginning at 8 a.m. Fast-food workers from McDonald’s have been some of the movement’s most visible organizers, and will likely contribute to a large number of strikers.
A large rally will kick off at 9:30 a.m. near the intersection of Telegraph Avenue and 45th Street in Oakland. Robert Reich, former US Secretary of Labor under President Clinton and current UC Berkeley professor of public policy, is slated speak there.
Reich, a vocal supporter of unionization, has for several years called for the minimum wage to increase to $15 an hour, which he says is in keeping with the federal minimum of the 1960s (when adjusted for inflation and gains in worker productivity). His economic argument against income inequality, widely publicized through the 2013 documentary Inequality for All, has galvanized the Fight for 15 movement. Wednesday’s march, however, will mark the first time Reich has explicitly aligned himself with the organization.
At 3 p.m., workers and student supporters will move to UC Berkeley’s Sproul Plaza for the day’s largest rally. Organizers note these campus protests are the first time students have organized in solidarity with the fast-food workers.
Wednesday’s protests also include other local activist organizations, including the Black Lives Matter movement. Many workers’ rights activists, such as Asher, are beginning to argue for the indivisibility of racial and economic justice. She said that there is “a lot of harmony” between the Fight for Fifteen and Black Lives Matter. Activists for living wages “owe a lot to the women, especially in our own region, who have organized the Black Lives Matter protests” and, in so doing, helped to introduce a younger generation to political activism.
East Bay food-justice activists are also enthusiastic participants in the workers’ rallies. UC Berkeley students and other locals involved in the UC Berkeley Gill Tract “Community Farm” project and the Occupy the Farm group are planning actions in solidarity with Fight for Fifteen.
Sprouts Farmers Market plans to pave over a long-vacant lot south of UC Berkeley’s Gill Tract research field in Albany, which activists say is one of the last large agricultural tracts in the urban East Bay and should be preserved to improve local food systems. (The university has announced no plans to pave over the research field itself.) Vanessa Raditz, a UC Berkeley graduate student and community organizer for urban agriculture and food justice, is helping to organize a protest at the grand opening of a Sprouts store in San Rafael.
Raditz notes that fast-food workers are some of the most in need of fresh produce, and says Sprouts is a company known for low wages and union busting. “Our fight isn’t just about land, and theirs isn’t just about wages,” Raditz said. She and other community food activists seek to “lift up workers and challenge corporate power” — just like the Fight for 15.
[Correction: This story misidentified the location and context of a planned Sprouts grocery store in Albany, and has been updated.]