The fast-food workers took turns detailing the indignities they endured on the job: taking the subway to work only to be sent home before a shift started, making $7.25 an hour after 10 years on the job, getting fired for eating a chicken nugget on the clock.
Then a man rolled up his sleeves, revealing burns from making french fries. Within moments, everyone in the room was doing the same. Their arms were covered in fresh wounds and old scars, from grease, from the grill, from hot coffeepots.
This moment of solidarity, at a meeting in New York in September 2012, would help spark the “Fight for $15,” a union-backed effort to raise the minimum wage that has grown into a national movement. It has led to increases to $15-an-hour in at least seven cities and 26 employers, including Google and Boston Medical Center, and helped inject the issue of income inequality into the presidential campaign.
It has also added to pressure on other companies to raise wages, including Walmart Stores Inc., which last month increased pay to an average of $13.38 an hour for full-time workers.
Anxieties about the growing divide between the rich and the poor have transformed Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont from a protest candidate into a serious contender for the Democratic nomination and forced his opponent, former secretary of state Hillary Clinton, as well as Republican candidates, to more fully address economic inequality.
The Fight for $15, said Jerold Waltman, a political science professor at Baylor University, has tapped into a deeply held view: “If you work, you ought to be able to make a decent living for you and your family.”
Naquasia LeGrand was a 21-year-old KFC worker bringing home $200 a week when she attended that first meeting. The sharing of burns was one of many “jaw-dropping” moments, she recalled. Another: When an organizer told the workers that unionized doormen in New York made $21 an hour. The room, she said, went “crazy.”
“What do we have to lose? We’re already working for pennies,” said LeGrand, who would go on to represent the fast-food workers at the White House and on Comedy Central’s “The Colbert Report.” “This could be a breakthrough to something different in our life, to actually be worth something.”
‘A part of history’
The groundwork for the movement was laid in 2011, when the Occupy movement started drawing unprecedented attention to the growing chasm between haves and have-nots. Around the same time, the Service Employees International Union launched a campaign called Fight for a Fair Economy.
The SEIU, which represents 2 million health care, janitorial, and other service workers, formed a coalition of 15 labor and community groups to reach out to low-wage workers and address concerns such as job creation and foreclosures, then running rampant through working-class communities.
Advocacy groups around the country were also stepping up efforts to help struggling residents. One of them, New York Communities for Change, started surveying low-income residents about affordable housing and other issues. Many of the most destitute — and vocal — people they met worked in fast food.
These cooks and cashiers were not teenagers working part time for extra cash, but parents struggling to feed their children. Some had worked in fast food for years, while living in public housing and relying on food stamps.
“It was a really a flashbulb to us,” said Jonathan Westin, executive director of New York Communities for Change.
But the size and scope of the fast-food industry — employing close to 3 million people, according to the US Census — was beyond NYCC’s abilities, Westin said, and he sought help from SEIU, a frequent partner.
That initial fall 2012 meeting attracted about 40 workers. Twice that many showed up to the next one. This time, the conversation revolved around forming a union and how much money it would take to survive, said Kendall Fells, an SEIU organizer.
The fast-food workers decided $10 an hour wasn’t enough, and $20 an hour didn’t seem possible. So they settled on $15.
At the third meeting, they set a strike date: Nov. 29, 2012. And early that Thursday morning, a week after Thanksgiving, 200 fast-food workers took to the streets of New York City. Many of them walked off their jobs, risking being fired and losing what little income they had.
“The individual courage of these few hundred workers making a bodacious demand galvanized the next stage of the national conversation about inequality,” said Mary Kay Henry, president of the SEIU.
Demonstrations soon spread to Chicago, St. Louis, Detroit, Milwaukee, and beyond. A year later, a one-day strike calling for $15 and a fast-food workers’ union took place in more than 100 cities, including Boston.
Darius Cephas got involved in early 2013, when an organizer walked through the door of the McDonald’s in Dorchester where Cephas was working. Cephas, 24, had been working since he was a teenager to help support his younger sisters and mother, who had a stroke when he was 18. On his McDonald’s wages, he said, he sometimes couldn’t afford to eat.
Cephas quickly became a leader in the movement, using his days off to recruit Boston workers to join the cause and traveling to Europe and Brazil on the SEIU’s dime to spread the word to workers and elected officials.
Cephas still makes low wages — at McDonald’s and at a Dollar Tree discount store in Hyde Park. But he now has something he previously had little of — a voice, and respect. “I’m actually going to be a part of history,” he said. “My name’s going to be remembered.”
Beyond fast food
The first major $15-an-hour victory came in the fall of 2013, when the residents of SeaTac, Wash., population 28,000, voted to raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour for hospitality and transportation workers.
Meanwhile, community organizations that were working to raise the minimum wage in Massachusetts — $8 an hour at the time — said they experienced a ripple effect from the Fight for $15 movement. Propelled by the outcry for higher wages, supporters gathered enough signatures to put a question on the ballot the following fall, prompting the Legislature to raise it to $11 by 2017, the highest state minimum in the country.
In early 2014, worker advocacy groups in Boston, inspired by the Fight for $15, formed what became known as the #WageAction coalition. The group helped expand the movement beyond fast-food workers, starting with a rally of 1,000 people that June in home health care, airport, retail, child care, and other low-wage jobs.
The following April, tens of thousands of low-wage workers from 350 cities around the globe held simultaneous protests, coordinated by the SEIU, to demand higher pay and more rights.
The movement has drawn strong opposition from business groups, including the Retailers Association of Massachusetts, which say that raising the minimum wage will cripple small businesses and slow hiring. These groups have criticized the SEIU for disguising what they say is its true agenda — bolstering the ranks of a dying labor movement, and the wages of its members — behind a populist campaign to raise the minimum wage.
Michael Saltsman, research director at the conservative Employment Policies Institute in Washington, estimates the SEIU poured nearly $60 million into the Fight for $15 campaign between 2012 and 2014.
“They’re writing checks because they hope there’s going to be a long-term payoff in terms of organizing members,” Saltsman said.
The national picture
A $15 minimum wage would raise pay for 42 percent of American workers, according to the National Employment Law Project, a New York workers’ rights group. Momentum for the increase is growing.
New York’s fast-food workers, where it all started, will soon make $15 an hour. Los Angeles, Seattle, and San Francisco have all approved a $15 minimum wage, and proposals are pending in several other major cities. Four states — New York, New Jersey, California, and Missouri — are also considering a $15 statewide minimum.
Nearly 60 percent of Americans support a $15 minimum, according to a survey done in November by the Public Religion Research Institute, a nonprofit research group in Washington. Last year, more than two dozen employers voluntarily raised their wages to $15 an hour, including three Boston hospitals and the transportation startup Bridj.
“Employers are now coming to low-wage bargaining tables, and saying, ‘I understand you have to get to 15,’ and the fight is over how fast,” said Henry, the SEIU president. “That’s a huge sea change.”Katie Johnston can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @ktkjohnston.