A movement that began in 2012 with 200 fast-food workers protesting in midtown reached an apex on Wednesday, as cities across the globe held rallies to push for higher wages and more benefits for low-income workers.
Since its smallish beginnings, the so-called Fight for $15 has expanded to include not only fast-food workers but also carpenters, construction workers, and home-care aides, among others. On Wednesday, a mishmash of unions and organizations gathered in groups citywide to call for a minimum wage of $15 per hour. It’s a fight that is especially pronounced in New York City, where median rental prices have gone up a whopping 75 percent since 2000 — while median incomes have declined. (The minimum wage in New York State is $8.75 an hour.)
The earliest demonstrations began in the morning, but the big event was scheduled for 4 p.m. at Columbus Circle. Other events took place in downtown Brooklyn and at a McDonald’s at 71st and Amsterdam, where people staged a “die-in.”
Meanwhile, at 111 West 57th Street — where JDS Development Group is erecting what will eventually become one of the tallest residential buildings in the world — the Building and Construction Trades Council of Greater New York held a rally to draw attention to the fact that JDS is using only non-union workers on the site.
Gary LaBarbera, 58, the council’s president, said, “We know that the workers who are working on this project are only receiving twelve, thirteen dollars an hour. We believe that whether you work at McDonald’s or you work in a car wash, there’s really no difference between a low wage there and a low wage here.” Once his group concluded its protest, the members marched up to Columbus Circle to join the larger Fight for $15 rally.
As the 4 p.m. start time approached, men and women in bright yellow vests with “Marshal” printed on the back began corralling protesters — many of whom donned construction hats — into areas cordoned off by police barriers. Ray Kitson, 51, the organizer of Local 3, an electricians union, ushered people away from store windows and urged them not to lean against the barriers. “We’re not against the non-union worker,” he explained. “We’re against them being exploited. But the developers intimidate the workers and make them feel like they have no other options.”
LaBarbera said as much in a brief speech in front of the crowd, which, by 4 p.m., stretched from Sixth to Seventh avenues. He led a cheer, crying, “Who are we?” (“Union!”) “Whose city?” (“Our city!”)
By that time, the official rally was under way. TV news vans lined Columbus Circle as different factions began to converge on Central Park West. At 60th Street, speakers alternated with musicians on a huge stage that loomed above the crowd, which included members from a variety of unions and organizations: the Hotel Trades Council, the New York State Nurses Association, Theatrical Teamsters 817, New York City Board of Education Employees, Homecare and Healthcare Workers, and the New York Grocery Workers Union. Near the stage, several demonstrators wielded a giant Ronald McDonald puppet that sported an evil grin and stood at least ten feet tall. People shook noisemakers and held signs that read, “Tired of working to make the rich even richer.”
On West 64th Street, members of United Healthcare Workers East, which represents some 360,000 workers, filled the street from Central Park West to Broadway. A man walked through the crowd handing out white plastic lab coats.
Katia Guillaume, 44, has worked for the union for ten years representing home health aides. Prior to that, she worked as a home health aide herself, and was a certified nursing assistant. Her mother, who immigrated to the United States from Haiti, was also a home health aide. “When she first came to this country 40-plus years ago, there was no regulation,” Guillaume said. “You did whatever you were told, and that’s basically how it was.” Her goal for herself and her members is simple: a living wage. “People should be able to afford to live where they work.”
Calvin Marron, a 28-year-old Brooklyn resident who works in retail, is a member of the Workers United New York/ New Jersey Regional Joint Board. He came to New York from Jamaica ten years ago, said he needs a higher wage if he wants to support himself and his family. “I want a pay raise,” he said. “I immigrated to the United States to earn a better living, and it hasn’t materialized yet. And I’d like to see that come to fruition before I retire.”