NEW YORK, N.Y. – Police handcuffed dozens of protesters who blocked traffic in dozens of cities across the country on Thursday in their latest attempt to escalate efforts to get McDonald’s, Burger King and other fast-food companies to pay employees at least $15 an hour.
The protests, which were planned by labour organizers for about 150 cities nationwide throughout Thursday, are part of a campaign called “Fight for $15.”
Since the efforts began in late 2012, organizers have switched up their tactics every few months to bring attention to the protests, which have attracted spotty crowds. Organizers previously said they planned to engage in nonviolent civil disobedience on Thursday, which they predicted might lead to arrests.
In New York, 19 people were arrested on Thursday for blocking traffic, with at least three people wearing McDonald’s uniforms taken away by police officers after standing in the middle of a busy street near Times Square. About two dozen protesters were detained in Detroit after they wouldn’t move out of a street near a McDonald’s restaurant. Others were apprehended by police in Chicago, Las Vegas, Philadelphia, Atlanta, Miami and Denver.
In Milwaukee, Democratic U.S. Congresswoman Gwen Moore was taken away in handcuffs by police for blocking traffic at a McDonald’s.
“I take great pride in supporting Milwaukee workers as they risk arrest in pursuit of a brighter tomorrow for their families,” Moore said in a statement through her communications director, Eric Harris.
Tyree Johnson also was among those hauled away in Chicago. Johnson earns $8.45 an hour after working at a Chicago McDonald’s for more than two decades. “I’ve been there 22 years and I can’t help my family,” he said.
The “Fight for $15” campaign, which is backed financially by the Service Employees International Union and others, comes at a time when the wage gap between the poor and the rich has become a hot political issue. Many fast-food workers do not make much more than the federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour, which adds up to about $15,000 a year for 40 hours a week.
The protests have not resulted in workers getting higher wages, but it has gotten media coverage. In Chicago, for instance, reporters observed supporters arriving on buses and sitting on a street between a McDonald’s and Burger King, chanting: “We shall not be moved.”
“The impact is in bringing it into the public attention,” said Chris Rhomberg, an associate professor of sociology at Fordham University in New York.
President Barack Obama has taken notice too. He mentioned the campaign at a Labor Day appearance in Milwaukee. “If I were busting my butt in the service industry and wanted an honest day’s pay for an honest day’s work, I’d join a union,” Obama said, as he pushed Congress to raise the minimum wage.
The National Restaurant Association said in a statement that the protests are an attempt by unions to “boost their dwindling membership.” The industry lobbying group said it hopes organizers will be respectful to customers and workers during the protests. McDonald’s, the world’s largest burger chain, said in a statement that there were no service disruptions at its restaurants on Thursday.
Union organizers expected thousands to show up to Thursday’s protests around the country. Previously, turnout has been fairly minimal in many places. In an effort to get more people involved, organizers asked other service workers to join protests and added more cities than it previously had.
Shanicka Primo, who was at a protest at McDonald’s in New York, said she heard about the demonstration after organizers came to the Checkers restaurant where she works. The 20-year-old earns $8 an hour at the burger chain and said a raise to $15 per hour would help her get her own apartment. “I wouldn’t have to live with my family,” Primo said.
Don Babwin in Chicago, Mike Householder in Detroit, Candice Choi in New York, John Locher in Las Vegas and Laura Wides-Muñoz in Miami contributed to this report.