Fast food workers on February 12 across the US walked off their jobs in the latest mass action to win a nationwide minimum wage of $15 an hour.
The strike for a $15 minimum wage coincides with the 50th anniversary of the Memphis sanitation workers strike.
Fifty years ago on February 12, African American sanitation workers in Memphis went on strike to protest their racist bosses and because they wanted to form a union.
They told city officials that they needed a union to protect themselves from racial discrimination.
They cited the death of two of their colleagues, Echol Cole and Robert Walker, who were crushed to death by malfunctioning equipment.
The tragedy did not seem to concern the white city officials who took no action to improve safety conditions in the city’s sanitation department.
The striking workers responded by demanding that they be treated like human beings, not disposable parts. Their rallying cry became, “I AM A MAN.”
Fifty years later fast food workers are taking up the same demand–treat us like human beings, pay us a decent wage, and let us form unions to make sure that employers treat employees with respect and dignity.
“Fast-food cooks and cashiers like me are fighting for higher pay and union rights, the same things striking sanitation workers fought for 50 years ago,” said Ashley Cathey, a 29-year-old Memphis fast-food worker explaining why she would be striking on February 12. “We’re not striking and marching just to commemorate what they did; we’re carrying their fight forward. And we won’t stop until everyone in this country can be paid $15 an hour and has the right to join a union.”
Fight for $15 strikes took place in two dozen cities across the US, but the center of the day’s action was Memphis, where striking workers and their supporters rallied at Clayborn Temple and then marched to city hall, the same route taken by striking sanitation workers 50 years ago.
Before they rallied at the Clayborn Temple, 100 Memphis fast food workers and their supporters rallied at a downtown McDonald’s.
One of the workers who walked off the job was Robin Curtis, a Burger King employee and a mother of two who works multiple jobs to support her family.
When she saw the crowd gather outside of the McDonald’s near where she worked, she decided to join the strike.
“$8 (an hour) is not enough to live on. It’s time for a change,” said Curtis to the Memphis Commercial Appeal. “To make a change, if I have to quit, I will.”
At the city hall rally, the Rev. Liz Theoharis, the co-chair of the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival, told the crowd that the fight for $15 is a fight for the soul of America.
It’s wrong, said Theoharis that “there are 64 million workers in this country that make less than $15 an hour, and yet 400 families (in America) make $97,000 an hour. This is not just. This is not right.”
Theoharis said that the Poor People’s Campaign beginning on Mothers Day would be initiating a season of organizing, educating, and mobilizing to revitalize the fight for economic justice and civil rights in the US.
For forty days after Mothers Day, Theoharis said, we’ll be taking non-violent direct action including acts of civil disobedience to win a $15 minimum wage, to win the right for workers to form unions, to win the right to live free of racism, to win the right to live free of sexism, and to win the right of all working people to live with dignity and respect.
Also scheduled to speak at the rally was the Rev. William Barber II, also a co-chair of the Poor People’s Campaign, but he was unable to attend because of illness.
In a statement issued prior to the Memphis march and rally, Barber emphasized the link between the sanitation workers’ strike and the fast food workers’ strike.
“The fight for strong unions was at the heart of the original Poor People’s Campaign,” said Barber referring to the 1960s campaign for civil rights and worker rights led by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. “It must be at the forefront of our effort as well.”
Barber did deliver an audio message to the Memphis rally.
In his message, he said that the best way to pay homage to striking Memphis garbage workers today is “to say to America . . . , it’s time to take out the garbage.”
“Racism is garbage,” continued Barber. “Sexism is garbage; mistreating women is garbage; not paying people a living wage is garbage; not being willing to give people health care is garbage; tearing down the environment is garbage; not caring for our Latino and immigrant brothers and sisters is garbage; trying to undermine union rights is garbage; and putting more money into wars than building people’s lives is garbage.
“It’s time for a movement that will take out the garbage and replace it with a new community, a new understanding, a new justice, a new fairness, a new equality, and a new wage.”