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Hundreds Arrested as Growing Fast-Food Workers’ Movement Strikes for Living Wage, Unionization

StorySeptember 05, 2014
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Fast-food workers fighting for a $15 hourly wage and union rights took to the streets in 150 cities across the country Thursday. More than 400 workers and their supporters were arrested during the strikes as they engaged in nonviolent civil disobedience by blocking streets during rush hour. To discuss this growing labor movement, we are joined by two guests: Ashona Osborne, a fast-food worker at Wendy’s who was arrested Thursday during the fast-food worker strikes, and before that in May during protests at the McDonald’s shareholders’ meeting; and Mary Kay Henry, president of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), which represents two million workers in healthcare, public and property services and has been a major backer of the fast-food worker strikes.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Fast-food workers fighting for a $15 hourly wage and union rights took to the streets in 150 cities across the country Thursday, from Las Vegas to Chicago and Detroit, to Little Rock, Arkansas, and here in New York City.

DIJON THORNTON: My name is Dijon Thornton. I work because I’m trying to like keep my house. I don’t want to like be homeless. And I just became the head of the household. And I work at a Wendy’s on 125th Street. I got a joint separation, and they didn’t give me any sick leave, and they still expect me to do the normal duties I was doing before my arm was messed up. It’s just a lot of little things that I don’t get paid to deal with.

AMY GOODMAN: More than 400 workers and their supporters were arrested during the strikes as they engaged in nonviolent civil disobedience by blocking streets during rush hour.

For more, we’re joined in Pittsburgh by Ashona Osborne, who’s a fast-food worker who previously worked for McDonald’s, now works for Wendy’s. She was arrested Thursday during the fast-food worker strikes.

Welcome to Democracy Now! You were involved also with the protests at the McDonald’s shareholder meeting. Can you talk, Ashona, about why you went out yesterday and got arrested?

ASHONA OSBORNE: Yes. Thank you for having me. And I went out yesterday basically to join my family. We are called the Fight for 15 and trying to get a union. And we are trying basically to fight this poverty that we are living in, trying to end disrespectful wages, and just have a better wage for our family.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And in terms of the sit-downs and the protests, why did you feel you had to resort to that, as well?

ASHONA OSBORNE: Basically, to let these corporations and these franchises know that this movement is not a game. We took a civil disobedience willingly. We volunteered that we were going to take a nonviolent civil disobedience and sit down, just to make the point to these CEOs and corporates that “We’re not playing. You need to hear what we’re saying. We are your workers. If it wasn’t for us, you wouldn’t have these companies.”

AMY GOODMAN: Do you mind talking about how much you make right now for Wendy’s?

ASHONA OSBORNE: Yes, I make $7.25 an hour.

AMY GOODMAN: And talk about what exactly you’re demanding.

ASHONA OSBORNE: I’m demanding $15 an hour for my pay.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And what’s been the response of fellow workers to the idea that you can have such a huge increase if they band together?

ASHONA OSBORNE: Well, it goes with both hands. Some people are in agreement with us. Yesterday, we had a lot of people from the public just walk off jobs and walk off the street and join our strike line. And it also goes to people who are ignorant to the situation, doesn’t know the understanding and the meaning of our movement, that once we go up, everyone goes up. The economy wages are already going up, and we can’t afford to live on $7.25.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re also joined by Mary Kay Henry, president of SEIU, Service Employees International Union, which represents two million workers in healthcare, public and property services, and has been a major backer of the fast-food worker strikes. You’ve been calling also on home healthcare aides to march alongside the fast-food strikers. Talk about the success of the strike, as you see it, Mary Kay Henry, and why SEIU is involved.

MARY KAY HENRY: Well, Ashona and workers all across this country, Amy, took this movement to the next level yesterday and shined a light on the gross inequity in pay for these jobs, where people work hard and can’t even afford basic necessities and make ends meet. And so, $15 and a union is a way to make sure that people have a living-wage job where they can support their families and get ahead. And homecare workers know the same experience, where they don’t get enough hours to make ends meet. Most homecare workers in this country earn minimum wage. And so, they decided to join with fast-food workers yesterday in building the broadest, most powerful movement possible to insist that it’s possible to work hard for a living and be able to afford enough to eat and then spend that money in our economy, so we can buy groceries, hardware store, get clothes for our kids, and get the economy roaring again for everybody in every community in this country.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Mary Kay Henry, one of the arguments of many of these firms, as this movement has been gathering strength, is that they essentially work with independent franchisees, who are small businessmen, really, and that they operate and they own their own franchises. Could you talk about that in the context of the recent National Labor Relations Board decision?

MARY KAY HENRY: Well, I’ve heard from workers like Ashona and DJ in Sacramento yesterday that every decision in that store is dictated by the multinational corporation that owns the—has the contract with the franchisee—how much Coke, what the cost of a burger is, what napkins are bought from where. And so, workers understand that the shots that are being called are by McDonald’s, Wendy’s and Burger King, and that’s why they are holding the corporations accountable for lifting wages, because franchisee contracts can be changed, and record profits can be put in the pockets of front-line workers so they can spend it in their communities and we can all share in the prosperity of the incredibly hard work that fast-food workers are doing each and every day.

AMY GOODMAN: Mary Kay Henry, Steve Greenhouse writes in The New York Times that within the SEIU there has been some grumbling about why has the union spent millions of dollars to back the fast-food workers, when they’re not in the industries that the union has traditionally represented. What is your answer to that?

MARY KAY HENRY: Well, that SEIU members and leaders all across this country were proud to stand with fast-food workers yesterday. I was in Oakland with healthcare workers, janitors, security officers. They know that when fast-food workers win, wages are going to rise across the service sector and will have an impact on homecare workers and childcare workers and airport workers. So we are incredibly proud and thrilled to have the backs of the fast-food workers, because we agree with them. We’re going to do whatever it takes to help them win.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Mary Kay Henry, President Obama, on Labor Day, specifically mentioned the fast-food workers’ movement. And I think we have a clip of him speaking. Let’s see if we can hear that.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: All across the country right now, there’s a national movement going on, made up of fast-food workers organizing to lift wages, so they can provide for their families with pride and dignity. There is no denying a simple truth: America deserves a raise! Folks are doing very well on Wall Street. They’re doing very well in the corporate boardrooms. Give America a raise.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: That was President Obama on Labor Day, just before these protests broke out. And was there any—was this a coincidence, or was your union able to get to the president to say, “Listen, why don’t you mention this, because we’re getting ready to have these major protests this week?”

MARY KAY HENRY: I think the president and people all throughout this nation are incredibly inspired by the fearlessness of these workers, who are not going to stop until they win. We looked at that clip from the president at 5:45 yesterday morning in Oakland. And workers who hadn’t had a chance, because they were working on Labor Day, were incredibly thrilled that the president of the United States is saying that what they’re doing makes complete sense, that it is wrong for multinational corporations that are earning record profits to be paying poverty wages. And what workers are doing is joining together in the tradition of this country to say that we deserve better and that we’re going to get it for ourselves, our families and for the future.

AMY GOODMAN: Ashona Osborne, are you afraid of retribution, of retaliation against your protests? This is the second time you’ve been arrested.

ASHONA OSBORNE: No, ma’am, I’m not. It just motivates me to keep doing it more and more.

AMY GOODMAN: Do you think you will win this? Have you seen a change—


AMY GOODMAN: Do see a change in attitude, for example, at Wendy’s, both with the workers and also with management, how they’re dealing with this?

ASHONA OSBORNE: I see a change with the workers. This strike that we had, as opposed to our last strike, we had way more people walk off the job and way more people from the public and workers come and join us as we were striking. We started out with about 10 people at 5:00 in the morning. By the time they came about noon, we had over 200 people all striking together as one.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Mary Kay Henry, I’d like to ask you about the growth of this movement. We’re getting more and more cities around the country looking at living-wage laws. We’re seeing a spread of the fast-food workers’ movement. Your sense of whether any of these major companies are on the verge or likely to finally concede on the main demand of $15 an hour?

MARY KAY HENRY: I have no idea what these companies are thinking, Juan, but I know that there’s been a huge change that these workers have accomplished. A hundred thousand workers in Seattle are going to see their wages rise to $15. We just settled a collective bargaining agreement for 23,000 L.A. Unified school workers. They’re going to go to $15 in January. Johns Hopkins Hospital workers just negotiated $15. It is an amazing movement, when there’s already victories that fast-food workers can take incredible pride that they made happen. And that’s why we’re so glad that 1.5 million homecare workers are answering the call and joining this movement, so we can spread it throughout the entire service sector and make sure that when you work hard for a living, you can afford to feed your family and maybe even get your hair done or take a vacation someday. And we have got to change the nature of work in this country, and these workers are leading the way for us.

AMY GOODMAN: Mary Kay Henry, how does the immigrant rights movement tie into this, with immigrant rights activists suffering a setback, believing President Obama was immediately going to issue executive order around immigration and stopping deportations, but that doesn’t look like it’s happening before the midterm elections?

MARY KAY HENRY: Well, there’s an incredible intersection of the immigrant rights movement and the fast-food workers’ movement. I saw it in Oakland yesterday. Many of the workers were Latino and had immigrated from Central America and Mexico. We’ve seen it across this country as the city organizations get built in local coalition with the immigrant justice movement. We still hope the president will take swift and bold action, but we understand that we have to grow a powerful movement that is not subject to the bad politics of this nation, but makes the case where everybody in this nation understands that we have to get the Republican House to act on commonsense immigration reform, so 11 million people can enter our democracy and join in the fullness of our economy. And we are not going to stop our movement building on immigrant justice or economic justice until we win.

AMY GOODMAN: Mary Kay Henry, we want to thank you for being with us, president of SEIU, Service Employees International Union. Thanks for joining us from the Bay Area, and Ashona Osborne, from Pittsburgh, working at Wendy’s, had also worked at McDonald’s, arrested Thursday during the fast-food workers’ strikes there. Over 400 people were arrested across the United States.

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