Major Showdown for $15 Minimum Wage Against the Big Corporations in Atlanta
The South has long been one of the most hostile places for labor organizing. From using prison labor to break labor unions – which in Georgia was done almost entirely to African Americans, as a form of an extension of slavery-by-another-name – to intense hostility to even the concept of the minimum wage itself – Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-TN) has called for abolishing it – Southern elites have long suppressed the rights and wages of workers.
But big changes are afoot, as activists across the region have been successful in recruiting thousands of people from all walks of life to join a movement for economic and social justice that sprawls several states.
On Wednesday, this movement took the form of the Fight For 15 Movement. Fight For 15 was originally organized around the fast food industry, as workers there worked to bring their wages up to $15 an hour. In the past few months, this movement expanded to include both home care workers and part-time faculty at colleges and universities, both groups that are paid so poorly many have to live on food stamps.
In Atlanta, Fight For 15 brought out hundreds of supporters, drawing from fast food and home care workers, faculty adjuncts, labor unions, progressive state lawmakers, and others advocating for a $15/hour minimum wage and union representation.
“Georgia is a right-to-work state – a right to fire state. And the reason we're in the South are starting to recognize this is because we need some help. It is a right to hire and fire state. A change needs to happen,” said Mardi Hill, an Atlanta home care worker who find out about Fight For 15 while perusing the Internet. “Some days you go home and you're wondering, are your lights going to be on? Can I pay my rent although I might've worked fifty hours in one week? It's not enough!”
Marchers assembled at historic Clark Atlanta University, which as Democratic State Senator Vincent Fort noted was the place where “people assembled on this ground fifty years ago” to end segregation.
Fort addressing the assembled protesters
One woman who had been working at the Atlanta University Center since 1994 noted that a quarter of adjuncts teaching there lived below the poverty line – despite the fact that they all by definition held college degrees.
The demonstrators then marched down to a local McDonald's franchise, passing a street named after the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and arriving at the restaurant – which happened to be located at the intersection of streets named after civil rights icons Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Reverend Joseph Lowery.
Dozens of protesters streamed into the McDonald's itself while scores chanted outside, “I believe that we can win!” and “Fifteen! Now!'
Demonstrators streamed inside of this McDonald's
The protesters then took an unexpected detour to a nearby Wal-Mart store, which is one of America's largest low wage employers. As hundreds stood outside chanting, police blockaded the doors, refusing to allow anyone entry.
Chanting outside Wal-Mart
At the conclusion of the march, a man who came all the way from North Charleston spoke, and drew analogies between low-wage work and the devaluing of black lives by police officers.
A protester peaking about North Charleston
“You see under-paid, poor communities, poor communities have poor policing. We've become victims of police brutality. I think that through the Fight For 15 our communities will have a little bit more economic empowerment,” explained Dawn O'Neal, a child care worker who joined Fight For 15 after learning about it through Black Lives Matter protests.“
O'Neal was particularly animated when I asked her about how the movement plans to overcome racial divisions that have particularly plagued the South, “People are unifying in the South, and you see more and more Caucasians, Hispanics...everybody's in the fight together.”
The protests around the country drew tens of thousands of people, and the protesters in Atlanta knew they were not only standing on the shoulders of civil rights giants who came before them but also alongside activists nationwide. Yet their most intense moral calling was the circumstances of the workers in their own communities.
I talked to Armondo Dukes, who has worked at Burger King for seven years. When he started at the restaurant, he was earning $7.25 an hour. In his seven years of service, he did get a raise – of exactly ten cents. Today, as a single father of three children, he struggles to support them on his meager wage of $7.35 an hour. I asked Dukes what he would do if the movement were to succeed, and he was able to be paid a living wage of $15 an hour. He thought about it for second, and then he explained that one of his kids plays basketball, and he'd love to buy him decent shoes so he can compete on the court.
That in a nutshell is what Fight For 15 is about – making life more worth living for millions of families who are denied the right to a decent day's wage. And in a region like the South that prides itself on family values and appreciating a relaxed lifestyle, there may just be the fuel for this movement to explode.