Fast-food workers, already a potent political force, are planning their largest nationwide strike yet next week and this time will leverage their crusade for a $15-an-hour wage in a bid to sway the 2016 presidential election.
The group representing the workers, Fight for $15, plans on Tuesday to stage protests at restaurants in 270 cities, the most since it began organizing the demonstrations three years ago.
Striking fast-food and other low-wage workers will then gather at local city halls, kicking off a campaign to prod their colleagues to vote next November for local, state and national candidates who support the $15 pay floor. Labor and other groups will simultaneously rally in about 200 other cities, and the daylong blitz will culminate with a protest by several thousand workers at the Republican presidential debate in Milwaukee.
“We’re putting politicians on notice that we’re going to hold them accountable,” says Kendall Fells, the organizing director of Fight for $15, a group funded by the Service Employees International Union.
All of the top Democratic presidential candidates, including Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders, have said they back a $12-$15 minimum wage and have made the growing divide between rich and poor a centerpiece of their campaigns. Most of the Republican contenders oppose raising the federal minimum of $7.25 an hour, saying it will hurt job growth.
But Kendall said, “This is not about a candidate, and it’s not about a party,” adding workers will vote for candidates of any party that support the cause.
Over the next year — the walkouts will be Nov. 10, exactly 12 months before the election — the group plans to mobilize many of the 64 million Americans who earn less than $15 an hour with neighborhood drives to register and vote.
Nearly 70% of unregistered voters would sign up, and a similar share of registered voters would be more likely to go to the polls if there were a presidential candidate in favor of a $15 minimum wage and workers’ right to unionize, according to a recent poll by Harris interactive and YouGov for the National Employment Law Project. NELP estimates those factions represent about 48 million potential voters.
“This set of issues can motivate voters who have not been engaged in the election process” and tip races in swing states, says Neera Tanden, president of the liberalCenter for American Progress.
Terrence Owens, 36, of Kansas City, Mo., earns $8 an hour at jobs at McDonald’s and Burger King and has participated in earlier protests. He says he has never voted because, “I truly thought my vote wouldn’t matter much,” and he was just “trying to make it to the next day.”
But noting that the low-paid worker demonstrations have led to significant advances, he plans to vote for the first time next year. “I’m seeing I can make a change,” he says.
The movement has been credited with coaxing cities such as Seattle and Los Angeles to raise their hourly minimums to $15 an hour, and with pressuring companies such as Wal-Mart, Target and McDonald’s to increase worker pay. But Owens is rankled by the legislature’s recent decision in his state to block Kansas City’s hike in the hourly minimum to $13.
Michael Saltsman, research director for the Employment Policies Institute, which is partly funded by the restaurant industry, said mandates for higher wages are already prompting some restaurants to lay off workers, close or experiment with replacing some employees with technology, such as touchscreen tablets to place orders.