by Cameron Orr
“They say a man don’t work, a man don’t eat. But we work and we still don’t eat.”
– Antoine Adams, Birmingham fast food worker.
Over 8,000 low-wage workers from across the country met in Richmond, Virginia on the weekend of August 12th – 13th to hold their own convention and rally. Gathering in the old capitol of the confederacy, they built an independent political platform for the 99%. Symbolically demonstrating a commitment to resist violently racist, anti-union, right-wing ideology, they simultaneously made clear their intention to hold every politician responsible for upholding the demands of the people’s movements.
Rolanda McMillan, a McDonald’s worker in Richmond, was one of the first workers to speak. “I have been working in fast food for about 10 years. I get up around 4:30 in the morning, and try to catch bus by 5:30 to be at work by 6 am. My car is down and I can’t pay my rent, pay the bills, fix the car, or get the gas. No matter your race, the majority of us are struggling. My Dad was able to take care of my whole family all by himself. We had a house; we had a car; and we had food on the table. Here I am with a college education, and I am frustrated because I cannot support myself. It also makes me afraid for myself, my children, and my children’s children, that they wont be able to take care of themselves.”
“We’re here today,” said Lauralyn Clark, a homecare worker in Richmond, Virginia, “because this is the former capitol of the confederacy. As a Black woman, we always did the grunt work for low wages. White babies drank from our breast, but we couldn’t drink from their fountains. White families relied on us to care for their elderly parents, but we couldn’t ride the bus with them. We cleaned their schools, but our children couldn’t attend. We cooked their food, but we couldn’t sit at their table. We want to live in a country where we can earn a living wage, pay our bills, feed our children, and save for retirement.”
Many of the country’s largest unions, including SEIU, UAW, the Teamsters, UFCW, and the CWA, supported the event in coalition with countless community partners. People were bussed in from all over the nation for the two-day event.
Nearly every state in the country was represented, each representing the #Fightfor15 movement with their uniquely designed T-shirts and logos. A diverse crowd representing all walks of life flooded the convention hall in bold colors, forming a beautiful mosaic of solid yellows, purples, blues, blacks, and reds.
Birth and development of the #Fightfor15
After the financial collapse of 2008, many politicians had congratulated themselves for an economic recovery and a lowered unemployment rate. The largest corporations reaped huge profits, but three-fifths of the jobs that returned were low-wage jobs, and workers continued to struggle to meet basic needs. This was the impetus for the #Fightfor15 movement, inaugurated by a national strike on November 29, 2012.
This surge in low wage jobs occurred mostly in food services and retail industries. As the second-largest private employer in the world, McDonald’s became a primary target for the initial campaign, but fast food workers are not the only ones fighting back. Homecare, healthcare, childcare, and nursing home workers, janitors, nail salon workers, airport workers, adjunct faculty, truck drivers, grocery store workers, wireless workers, and security officers have been integral to the success of the movement.
A bold platform for social change
Reminding one another of their power to win, workers at the #Fightfor15 convention laid out a broad vision. The right to a $15 an hour minimum wage as well as the right to join a union without retaliation from an employer forms the heart and beginning point of the #Fightfor15 movement. Inseparable from these concrete demands, the commitment to fight for racial justice and against police brutality was constantly reiterated along with the necessity of immigrant justice to bring about true working class unity and power. Voting rights were discussed as well as LGBTQ rights, environmental justice, needs of the disabled and elderly, taxes and social benefits, and access to childcare and homecare, housing, food, education, and transportation.
Low-wage workers encouraged thousands of their sisters and brothers to celebrate their victories, and to face the road ahead with continued determination. All those in attendance were educated on the histories of attacks against workers and unions in connection with growing inequality, structural racism, police violence, and incarceration.
A strong presentation was given on the history of solidarity between the labor movement, faith leaders, and the fight against slavery, for civil rights, for women’s rights, and for immigrant rights.
Laura Pierre, a Taco Bell worker in Florida, told the assembly, “These corporations that we work for every day are constantly trying to rob us and take away our voices in government. The 1% has more wealth than 60% of people living in the United States today. We need elected officials to start talking about economic justice for all. With 20 million workers getting raises in past two years, we have changed the conversation. We now have the momentum for a redistribution of economic and political power in this country!”
“For me Fightfor15 is not just about higher wages. It is also about making #BlackLivesMatter,” said Miranda Yonta of New Orleans. “96% of low wage workers in my city are Black. Alton Sterling didn’t make living wages, so he was selling CDs when he was murdered by police. They didn’t see him as a father or a husband. They saw him as a criminal, a murderer. We’re here in Richmond today not just to fight for high wages, but to continue to fight against police violence and racism.”
Hertencia Petersen spoke to the convention about her nephew, Akai Gurley, who was murdered by policemen Peter Liang and Shaun Landau on November 20, 2014. “While walking down a flight of steps Akai did nothing wrong; he was murdered because of the color of his skin. Both officers were fired from the force but were not held accountable for Akai’s death. We know that police brutality, systematic racism, gentrification, mass incarceration, and poverty against people of color has been going on for far too long. This must end today. All lives will matter when Black lives matter. I am standing in solidarity today with every fast food worker, every home care worker, every restaurant worker, demanding that our elected constituents hear our voices. We stand united for the minimum wage to be increased.”
SEIU president Mary Kay Henry was a keynote speaker for the convention.
“Southern states 150 years ago fought to maintain slavery in this country. The legacies and consequences of that slave system are still with us today. Those racist cornerstones are a major reason why we need to #Fightfor15 and a union. We’re not stopping until 64 million come out of poverty wage jobs, until we end racism, immigrant justice and clean our air and water once and for all. We will be the most unstoppable force for change that this country has ever seen in your lifetime!”
Adriana Alvarez is a McDonald’s worker from Chicago. She talked about holding elected officials accountable to the workers’ demands. “Rahm Emmanuel, who has never been for raising wages, was up for reelection. He realized the only way to get reelected was if he raised minimum wage. Chicago is now on a pathway to $13 by 2019. It’s a step forward and we’re going to keep pushing the politicians. They have got to work for us; we’re the working class. In November, when the President is elected, we are going to be out there the next day.”
The #Fightfor15 movement is planning a national day of actions to support the full range of its demands in November following the elections.
North Carolina NAACP president Reverend Barber, an African-American preacher who spoke to the Democratic National Convention in July, is calling for a moral revolution of values. He is leading the charge to organize the South, the heartland of right-wing reaction in the United States. Barber, like Mary Kay Henry, also spoke of cornerstones: the cornerstones of social progress. “I know that many of you have felt rejected because of the kind of work you do, because you weren’t born in America, because of who you love, because you’re raising children out of wedlock, or you have a prison record, or you have some kind of other stain. But I’ve got good news for the rejected. I come from a faith tradition, and the Psalm says, ‘The stone that the builder rejected has become the chief corner stone.’ In other words, the rejected have power – power to come together, and when the stones that have been rejected come together, something powerful can happen.”
Jorel Ware, a McDonald’s worker, spoke to thousands rallying at the end of a march past many statues of former confederate leaders. “The Robert E. Lee statue behind me represents racism, oppression, hate, and slavery. In the course of history, the confederates lost. Today, the confederacy represents people that want to build walls, that don’t believe in raising the wages, that don’t believe in unions, police officers that kill unarmed Black men, women, and even children. The Union during the Civil War represented love, justice, freedom, and they won. Just like the Union, we follow the footsteps of other great movements, like the women’s rights movement, like the Abolition movement, and the Civil Rights movement. All of our movements created change in this country right here. You may not feel like Martin Luther King Jr., but do you remember Selma? I want everybody to take a look around them.” As the thousands of workers, unionists, community partners, faith leaders, and activists took note of their great numbers together, Jorel exclaimed, “This is our Selma!”