When dance student Jamie Capdevilla walked out of a McDonald’s on the Upper West Side in Manhattan on Wednesday, more than 100 low-wage workers greeted her, chanting: “What do we want? 15! When do we want it? Now!”
This year’s “Fight for $15” protests, part of a three-year-old campaign for a higher minimum wage backed heavily by the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), saw the demonstrations widen their focus from fast-food workers to other low-wage employees. In New York and across the country, thousands of construction workers, adjunct professors, home care aides and others took to the streets, calling for “$15 and a union.”
“I think it’s fair because the cost of living is insane in New York City,” Capdevilla said. “It’s not like they’re asking for $25 an hour.”
Capdevilla, 22, who’s lived in the city for three years, said she’s worked at McDonald’s and other, more high-end establishments to meet routine expenses. The jobs weren’t dramatically different, she said. “Just 'cause the food is cheaper doesn’t mean the people are working any less.”
Other patrons and passersby were also sympathetic.
“I think it’s wonderful,” said Sandi Harrison, 67, a street vendor selling toy cars on the same block as the Upper West Side McDonald’s. “But people shouldn’t just be protesting McDonald’s and Wal-Mart, they should be protesting our government that is preventing wages from going up.”
President Barack Obama and congressional Democrats support a boost in the federal minimum wage from $7.25 to $10.10 an hour, but Republican majorities in the House and Senate oppose such a move.
“I decided I wasn’t going to work for anybody for this very reason,” said Harrison, a Brooklyn native who’s been an independent vendor for 50 years, on and off, selling toy cars, flowers, incense, “just about everything.”
Harrison recalls the March on Washington, which she attended as a teenager in 1963. She says the protests remind her of “what we did in the 60s.” She added, “Before there was racial slavery; now there is economic slavery.”
One elderly patron inside McDonald's was sipping coffee and reading the newspaper before the protest began. He said employees deserve a raise of some kind -- “maybe $10, $11”-- but he said $15 is too much, since he doubts McDonald’s could afford it.
A young man who identified himself only as Benjamin was taking a quick cigarette break during the protest. Dressed in the blue garb of “Ready, Willing & Able” -- a nonprofit that provides transitional work to formerly homeless and incarcerated people -- he chuckled as a man was angrily turned away from the McDonald’s side entrance. Managers would not let anyone into the store during the protest.
“I agree with the cause,” said Benjamin, who did not provide his last name. “But I don’t believe in what they’re protesting against.” He has little confidence employers will heed worker demands to hike pay.
As protesters cleared out and began marching down Broadway, Benjamin moved into the emptying sidewalk with his broom and started sweeping.