As the line of marchers grew and drummers and bands loudly revved up, Marcus Stone, an $8 an hour McDonald’s cook, was pumped.
“I believe it is going to happen, if we fight hard enough,” he said, covered in a thin plastic slicker because of a bone-chilling rain drenching downtown Chicago.
He took a nine-hour, all-night bus from Kansas City with his wife and four children, their seven-month-old included, to march Tuesday through crowded rush-hour streets in what the Fight for 15 movement called its largest-ever protest against the fast-food giant.
The march was planned to send a message the day before the McDonald’s annual stockholder meeting, where more protests were planned for today.
His wife Douglesha, 27, explained some facts of life commonly repeated by many of the marchers.
She said that Marcus’ salary and the $8.50 an hour she earns as a home health care aide, plus food stamps they receive, means paying only essential bills and struggling by as they put the others aside.
Sometimes there’s not enough for even those bills, and so she washes the children with water boiled on the electric stove. And sometimes she wonders, she said, whether they will have enough to get through the day. But she hasn’t lost hope in the drive to boost wages for workers like her and her husband.
“I can’t give up. I can’t stop because we are all in this thing together,” she said. “We are family. We are covering each other’s back.”
Indeed, Madie Cummings, 40, got on a bus early in the morning in Cleveland, where she is a kindergarten teacher, so she could show her support for the workers’ drive for $15 an hour and union rights. She knows there are some who doubt if the five-year-old drive will pay off for them “because they have been let down so many times.”
That wasn’t the mood on the bus, however. “I didn’t get to sleep because everyone was talking and everyone was very motivated,” she said.
Clutching a poster about a “poverty wages,” Bill Bolinger, 75, from United Auto Workers Local 31, who put in 44 years at a General Motors Co. plant in Kansas City, said he can’t imagine anyone living on $7.25 an hour. He was earning $28 an hour when he retired 11 years ago. “We fought for that stuff,” he said, “but unfortunately the unions didn’t reach out to the lower wage workers.”
Slowly the march swept along rain-soaked streets, wheelchairs and baby carriages here and there. Answering calls shouted over bullhorns, the marchers chanted back about democracy and winning their fight. They waved banners. Daytime workers busily heading home rushed by them, but some stopped to stare and take pictures.
Walking along was Pat Puccio, a $9-an-hour worker at a Detroit area Wendy’s, who says he served in the U.S. military for 17 years. He quickly added that, lately, life hasn’t been so easy. “I’m struggling really hard.”
So, too, Halbert Baldwin, 22, who earns $8.25 an hour working in a St. Louis nursing home kitchen. He said he is “struggling every day. I got two kids to support.”
“People over profit,” read his hand-made sign.
In Minneapolis, where Serena Thomas, 24, works as a waitress and organizer for Restaurant Opportunities Centers United, some workers are fearful of speaking up about their wages, knowing “their bosses don’t want that kind of talk in the workplace.”
Yet that fear and the growing power of opponents to wage increases for low wage workers, hasn’t dampened her hopes.
“We are more united,” she said.
Stephen Franklin is a former labor and workplace reporter for the Chicago Tribune, was until recently the ethnic media project director with Public Narrative in Chicago. He is the author of Three Strikes: Labor’s Heartland Losses and What They Mean for Working Americans (2002), and has reported throughout the United States and the Middle East.