Tourists crossed in large masses from one street corner to the other. The marquees were lit up and the gargantuan advertising billboards made it hard to concentrate on simply putting one foot in front of the other. The snow at the edges of the sidewalk, darkened by automobile exhaust and speckled with colorful pieces of trash, was beginning to melt and puddle. It was hard to ignore the contrast of glitter and grime in New York City’s theater district — sensorial reminders of the city’s social contradictions.
Also hard to ignore: The jubilant crowd of mothers and their children rolling down 51st Street towards the McDonalds on Broadway, getting ready to take over the eatery, and not with orders of Happy Meals. They waved colorful signs and danced to live percussion rhythms alongside elected officials, clergy, and community leaders, quickly advancing towards the Golden Arches. Their plan: To momentarily stop the consumption of Big Macs, Chicken McNuggets, and McFlurries; to take over the business in demand of a higher, living-wage for fast food workers — $15 an hour with a side of human dignity.
It was March 8, 2015, International Women’s Day, and the stroller brigade, as it was called, was part of the Fight for $15 campaign. As the New York organizer for the National Domestic Workers Alliance, I had worked with grassroots affiliates to mobilize a contingent of nannies, house cleaners, and home-care attendants to protest the ways in which these workers experience regular wage theft, make less than minimum wage and are denied overtime pay. These realities — often compounded with other injustices — are a regular feature on the continuum of widespread exploitation and abuse that is common to domestic work.
As we made a beeline for McDonalds’ front door, New York City’s Public Advocate Letitia James squeezed inside just before two heavy-set, scowling, red-faced security guards (who seemed to be specially hired for the day) blocked us from entering. After several attempts to maneuver around and slip by them, the domestic worker leaders next to me decided to disrupt business in a different way, pressing themselves against the plate glass windows with banners and signs, chanting ever louder than before. When I looked inside it appeared that business had stopped; patrons with half eaten Big Macs in hand and employees behind the counter stared back at us, some nodding in approval.
Domestic workers are participating in such actions because they know that, in order to fight inequality in the city, connections among low-wage service sector workers must be fortified. Many of those employed in the service sector, whether at McDonalds, or in domestic work or childcare, are working and single mothers who grapple with the rising costs of living in the Big Apple. And for almost all these women, the current wages they make — both minimum wage and below minimum wage —prohibit them from attaining the basic necessities they and their loved ones need. And this is a reality across the country — almost two out of three people who work in jobs paying minimum wage are female, and this includes millions of working and single moms.
Less than three years ago, on November 29, 2012, fast food workers in New York City went on strike, the largest in the history of the fast food industry. They called for a $15-per-hour wage floor, better working conditions, and the right to form a union without retaliation from their managers. Since that first walkout, thousands of other fast food workers have striked in nearly 200 cities around the country. The movement has elevated the debate around inequality and the essential need for minimum wage to be a living wage. On June 2, 2013, the Seattle city council unanimously passed a wage ordinance to raise the city’s minimum wage to $15 an hour, making it the nation’s highest minimum wage that would be progressively implemented over the course of several years. In both his 2014 and 2015 State of the Union address, President Obama urged Congress to raise the federal minimum wage from $7.25 an hour to $10.10 an hour, challenging those who refused. “If you truly believe you could work full-time and support a family on less than $15,000 a year, go try it," he said. "If not, vote to give millions of the hardest-working people in America a raise.”
Though potential Republican Presidential candidates like Marco Rubio, Rick Perry, and Jeb Bush have all come out in favor of keeping a low minimum wage, the movement is gaining traction in even unlikely corners - CEOs of mega corporations like Walmart, Aetna, the Gap, and Starbucks are proactively raising wages, most believing that a paying a living wage is simply good business. But more must be done - instead of treating workers like disposable commodities, the Fight for $15 campaign is an acknowledgement that an honest day's work is worth an honest day's pay.
As the New York Organizer, Irene supports the National Domestic Workers Alliance's New York affiliates in their current multi-faceted domestic worker organizing efforts.