Why fast food workers are striking in 500 US cities

Fast food workers nationwide are protesting for $15 an hour wage, and the right to unionize. Organizers hope to push the agenda to the 2016 presidential campaign. 

(AP Photo/Elaine Thompson)
A protester looks on at a rally for fair wages Wednesday, April 15, 2015, in Seattle. Across the U.S., fast-food and other low-wage workers are calling for protests for a $15 an hour wage in what organizers are calling the biggest ever mobilization of workers.

The quest for higher minimum wages took a higher profile Tuesday as fast-food workers staged protests in cities around the nation, pushing for $15 an hour and union rights.

Nationwide, organizers plan rallies in 500 cities hoping to catch the attention of presidential candidates in the 2016 elections. Republicans have a debate Tuesday night and Democrats have one Saturday.

According to the organizers, fast-food employees in some 270 cities will be joined by workers in another 230 cities from other industries that typically pay low hourly wages, including home and child care, Reuters reports.

In New York, where workers recently won a new $15 hourly wage by 2018 and statewide by 2021, a few hundred joined the protest in solidarity.

The workers carried banners reading "A living wage = quality care" and "On strike for work that sustains families," blocked traffic, and rallied outside a McDonald’s in downtown Brooklyn, the Associated Press reports.

"The money I bring home can barely take care of my rent," protester Alvin Major, 50, a Guyanese native who said he earns about $1,200 a month with his job at a Brooklyn KFC, according to AP. "We need a wage that could take care of our basic necessities."

The USA Today notes that

Already an influential political force, the workers plan to use their new-found muscle to sway local, state and national elections exactly 12 months from now and say they'll back any candidate of any party who supports their cause. The Fight for $15 group says it will hold voter registration drives and neighborhood parties to coax the workers to the polls.

Low-wage workers in the United States are “starting to wake up politically,” according to Yannet Lathrop, a researcher at the pro-union National Employment Law Project (NELP).

Citing a recent survey by NELP that showed 65 percent of low-wage workers - groups that represents 48 million potential voters - "would be more likely to vote in the coming presidential race if a candidate supported a $15 minimum wage and unionization," Lathrop said. “The way that low-wage workers have been engaging in the fight for $15 is really suggestive of a low-wage population that was disengaged prior to that fight.”

Tuesday's protests come weeks after a poll by Quinnipiac University found that 62 percent of New York voters supported raising the minimum wage to $15 over the next few years. 

But not every US city is ready for higher wages. Just last week, Portland, Maine, voted down a $15 per hour minimum wage proposal. 

This may have come as a surprise to some, especially in a city that is generally ranked among the most liberal in the country: 46.9 percent of voters in the city are registered Democrats, and only 13.9 percent are registered Republicans.  

Critics of the proposed bill said that their reasons were economic rather than political; many small business in and around the city said that they would be unable to afford it.

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