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Scenes From Four Wage Protests Across the Country

In cities throughout America yesterday, advocates for workers' rights mobilized in a day of nationwide protests. Led in part by labor organizations like Fight For $15 and the Service Employees International Union, nationwide rallies called for raising the minimum wage for service workers — many fast-food and food-service employees among them — to a "living wage," defined by many as $15 an hour. Eater writers and illustrators were on the scene during protests, vigils, and events in four cities: New York, Los Angeles, Washington, DC, and Portland, Oregon. Here's what they saw:


In New York City, illustrator Suhita Shirodkar captures a union leader speaking to the crowd at New York City's Sixth Avenue and 57th Street. "The crowd stretched almost to Seventh Avenue and across 57th Street," she said.

Washington, DC

Dignity, Equality, Freedom | by Amy McKeever

On Wednesday evening in Washington, DC, just as workers escaped their offices, another group of laborers joined together at the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial. The sun was too low in the western sky for the 30-foot pink granite statue of Dr. King to cast a shadow over the small gathering at the rear entrance of the memorial, but the protest hardly needed that symbolism.

At the end of his life — the 47th anniversary of his assassination was marked just two weeks ago — Dr. King had pivoted his civil rights movement to focus on poverty with the 1967 creation of the Poor People's Campaign. "I have the audacity to believe that peoples everywhere can have three square meals a day for their bodies, education and culture for their minds, and dignity, equality, and freedom for their spirits," King said in his 1964 Nobel Prize acceptance speech.

Miss Gladys, a home health care worker, echoed that refrain in her own speech at the rally. Clad in purple pants, a white Home Care Fight For $15 t-shirt, and an earth-toned floral scarf, Miss Gladys stood with an arm around her daughter and argued that $10.50 an hour wasn't enough to provide those three square meals a day that would bring her daughter dignity, equality, and freedom. The girl clung to her mother's side, letting her tiny braids fall across her face as she snuck glances at the horseshoe of supporters hanging on to her mother's words.

Home care workers led this particular rally, seeking $15 per hour and a union of their own. They were joined by students from American University — who spoke in solidarity with the food service workers and bus drivers on their campus "who make our education possible" — and the DC Labor Chorus punctuated the speeches with performances of spirituals like "There's Honey in the Rock." Two women in Fight for $15 shirts led a call-and-answer chant evoking Ferguson, Staten Island, and North Charleston. "No justice, no peace. No justice, no peace," the refrain began. Then back to the business at hand: "No 15, no peace. No 15, no peace."

Suhita Shirodkar, sketching from NYC.

Black women — the demographic group that continues to possess one of America's highest poverty rates — made up the majority of the speakers and performances at the evening rally. They spoke before a diverse but mostly white audience, most activists. The crowd also ebbed and flowed with tourists in town for peak bloom of the cherry blossom trees, some who stopped as they passed through the memorial's entrance.

As the DC Labor Chorus sang, freckled girls in braces, fresh off their tour buses, danced and clapped along in the affected mockery that only a teenager can carry off. A thirty-something white woman out for a jog amid the memorial parks stopped to listen for awhile. And another tourist, a middle-aged Hispanic woman, switched her phone's camera from selfie mode to photograph Reverend Graylan Hagler, senior minister at the local Plymouth Congregational United Church of Christ, as he preached that "justice doesn't end with a fifteen-dollar figure."

The DC rally stressed MLK's efforts to link civil rights and human rights with economic justice.

Everyone remembers Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" speech, Hagler told the growing audience. But they don't always remember King's efforts to link civil rights and human rights to economic justice. "What [good] does it do to anyone to desegregate and still not be able to buy a hamburger at a lunch counter?" he asked, paraphrasing King. "Fifteen dollars an hour? Why do people think that's too much? ... You cannot afford to live here [in DC] even with 15 dollars an hour."

Singer and activist Ayanna Gregory, daughter of comedian and civil rights leader Dick Gregory, closed out the evening vigil, singing about unity and the sense of powerlessness that can overcome "people who have been disrespected for so long." Even though they might not be the majority, she said, "when you're on the side of right, you don't have to have the numbers."

At the end of her mini-set, Gregory turned the microphone over to her two young nieces, who had flanked her singing back-up during most of the performance. "Some people out in the world, they don't have more money like McDonald's," one of the girls said. Her sister took the mic next. "You should tell your bosses they shouldn't just sit around and count their money all day. It's not fair you only get a little bit of money and they get to sit around and count their money all day."

With that, event organizers asked the now-swollen group of protesters to join hands as they marched into the memorial and encircled the statue of Dr. King, singing "We Shall Overcome." Tourists gawked, as tourists tend to do. ("Scott, what are they rallying about?" a boy with acne and a hoodie asked the boy next to him.) Meanwhile, a National Park Service Ranger carried on with his hourly talk about the King statue, which faces out across the Tidal Basin toward the Jefferson Memorial.

Protesters lingered in the memorial plaza for 10 or 15 minutes after the last refrain of "We Shall Overcome," but by 7:30p.m., the memorial belonged once again to the gaggles of schoolchildren, families, and couples completing their circuit of the National Mall and Memorial Parks. Except for Ayanna Gregory and her nieces, who stood together looking up at Dr. King. When interrupted for her thoughts on the lives of fast-food workers, Gregory was unwavering. Fast-food companies already fill us all with poison, she said, so it's no surprise that they don't respect their own workers. Really, it's up to consumers to make a stand for the people who are serving them, she added. "It's about having respect for human life all the way around."

New York City

Art Marshal | by Hillary Dixler

"This is much larger than most of the other puppets we've done," says a skittish artist, looking down at a multi-part effigy of Ronald McDonald carefully laid down on the pavement of Central Park West. "It's a pretty big creature."

I don't know this young man's name, but he's with a group of people wearing purple armbands that say "art marshal." He wants to "stay anonymous" and instead asks that I refer to the organization he's a part of: the People's Puppets of Occupy Wall Street. This puppet-making group also goes by the name OWS Puppet Guild. They make and use art to fight for social justice, and they are semi-regulars on the NYC protest circuit.

The head and clown shoes for the Ronald McDonald puppet are made of painted papier-mâché. There's cloth for the clown suit, and irrigation tubing to keep its shape. It wasn't too hard for the artists to make him look evil, since "he's already a creepy, awful clown," the art marshal says. The build took the group a couple weeks, which is pretty standard for a project of this scale.

Along with the Ronald McDonald, the puppet collective also built several smaller pieces. There are angry hamburgers where the bottom bun opens and closes like PacMan's mouth. There are red boxing gloves with "$15" written on them in white, and some other signs spread throughout the designated rally area. "We figured people would be hanging around at the rally and waiting for the march to start," he explains. "We wanted props so that when people started to get bored we could give them something to play with." Rally attendees are quick to pick up the free signs.

A man handing out Revolution newspapers inadvertently walks across the rows of hamburger puppets, much to the attending art marshal's dismay. More art marshals energize, and the group must re-attach the bottom buns to their hinges. The hamburgers are moved and stacked closer to the Ronald puppet. They're safer with Ronald.

Los Angeles

Shangri-La | by Lucas Peterson

The sky is blue and limpid on Tax Day, and about 1,000 people have flooded Figueroa near 29th Street, close to the University of Southern California, to lobby for the right to unionize and a $15 minimum wage for fast-food workers. They certainly picked the perfect spot to stage the protest. The roughly 600-foot stretch on Figueroa between 28th and 30th Streets can only be described as fast-food Times Square. It's a nerve center of frozen meat patties and deep-fat fryers. It's Shangri-La for people who absolutely, positively cannot wait more than five minutes for a meal.

On that 1/10 of a mile section, there are the following franchises, all of them full-sized restaurants (none of that "combination Pizza Hut and Taco Bell" nonsense in this neighborhood): Carl's Jr., Jack in the Box, KFC, Subway, Domino's Pizza, Pollo Loco, Panda Express, McDonald's, and Starbucks. And that's only the major, nationwide franchises. There are a half-dozen other one-offs that wouldn't ring familiar to the casual diner: Chinatown Express, Pasta Roma, and something called Soy Grill & Roll. At least a dozen fast-food restaurants occupy two blocks. And on the very next block, between 28th and 27th Streets, there's a Taco Bell, a Jimmy John's, a Five Guys, and a Popeyes.

The protesters are vocal but well-behaved. A chant of "What do we want? Fifteen!" is rolling like a wave through the crowd. Petitions are being passed around, and a few people are taking selfies. Everyone seems to have a T-shirt on that associates them with their particular group or union: things appear well-coordinated, or at least color-coordinated, within respective groups. The folks from SEIU 99 all wear blue. The folks from SEIU 721 are wearing purple. The LA Black Worker Center and the Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment have their own shirts, as well. The group called Fix LA Now did it right — they brought those thunderstick noisemakers that you bang together. A few stray guys brought drums or bongos; a couple people brought five-gallon plastic buckets and are banging on those. The crowd is mostly female — almost overwhelmingly so — and largely non-white. There are children running around through the crowd. A group of Asian ladies has moved out of the sun under an awning on the side of a building.

Shirodkar, sketching from the NYC protest.

They form a wall with their respective banners, facing south on Figueroa. A man starts chanting, in Spanish: "La unión está presente! Se ve y se siente!" There's a lot of press. A female newscaster preens in a handheld mirror and mutters something to her cameraman.

The man who started chanting isn't able to get anyone to join in with him, and stops. It's not because people aren't interested; they're chanting a different chant, or simply involved in their own respective groups. On second glance, there are far more varied and different interests in the crowd than simply the rights of fast-food workers. There are airport workers, laundry workers, big signs that say "Justice for Janitors," and "#BlackLivesMatter." Even some Screen Actors Guild representatives have shown up.

Just because people are striking for a higher minimum wage, that doesn't preclude their needing Frappuccinos and orange chicken.

It's a lot like Los Angeles itself: 100 different neighborhoods in search of a civic identity, and yet all very distinctly L.A. One could be cynical and say that protesters are just looking for any excuse to pick up a sign and march. Or one could say that there are a lot of people, more than we perhaps realized, who are struggling to get by, and have reached a breaking point.

A flatbed rental truck on one side of the street acts as a makeshift bandstand. Someone has the microphone, and is leading another chant of "What do we want? Fifteen!" There are some unmanned instruments on the stage, and it would appear that there might be some music later. A woman named Gilda Valdez seems to be running the show, bringing on speakers one by one, each of whom has their own personal reasons for protesting the minimum wage. Valdez has the added responsibility of translating the speeches of English speakers for the Spanish speakers in the crowd. She's doing a great job, but runs into tricky words every now and then. When Art Pulaski of the California Labor Federation somehow works the word "longshoreman" into his remarks, Valdez throws her hands up and laughs.

The fast-food restaurants on Figueroa are all open. They're also all humming along like normal; slightly busier than normal, even. Just because people are striking for a higher minimum wage, that doesn't preclude their needing Frappuccinos and orange chicken. It's also a convenient water and restroom stop. Lots of middle-aged and elderly men and women are sitting around the Panda Express, mopping their brows and occasionally getting water from the soda machine.

Starbucks is insanely busy. There are nine employees behind the counter, and none can spare a second to breathe. There's a line 10 or 12 people deep. Every table is taken, and there's a large number of journalists leeching off the wi-fi. An employee walks outside and beseeches protesters to clear the drive-thru area. "I had no idea this was happening today," he says of the protests. "I just thought this was a busy day for some reason."

Not every restaurant is open; one decided to lock its doors. McDonald's posted a sign apologizing for the inconvenience, but they would not be letting people into their lobby today. They would, however, welcome customers in their drive-through.

Portland, Ore.

Lunch and a Show | by Erin DeJesus

Portland, Oregon's O'Bryant Square is less a public park and more an impromptu dining room. The brick-and-concrete square sits caddy-corner to one of the city’s vibrant food-cart "pods," the lots where stationary food trucks are permanently parked. Hawaiian cart 808 Grinds, Emame's Ethiopian Cuisine, and Taste of India create the "V" pointing toward the square. And on April 15, the intersection of SW 9th and Washington provides the line of demarcation between pod and protest, which just happens to take place where worker bees eating their cart food could act as inadvertent observers.

"Normally we'd sit in the park, but not today," said one twenty-something man in a suit, eating a sandwich from the nearby Grilled Cheese Grill. He gestured toward the square, where dozens of people had gathered. But as a handful of $15-wage protestors filed into the square to kick off the event, he and his dining companion sat with their backs to the action to shield their eyes from the sun, popping potato chips into their mouths. He "never" eats fast food, he said, but was quick to rattle off lunch suggestions from the nearby cart pod: 808 Grinds, the Grilled Cheese Grill, the barbecue at the People's Pig.

Roughly 20 cart-diners sat along the edges, stabbing at trays of noodles, curries. A couple holding foil-wrapped sandwiches lingered along one of the square's entrances, keeping a safe distance in between the park and random, non-eating passerby to stopped to watch. Advocates from the Service Employees International Union, representing home-care workers, dotted the crowd with purple balloons.

A vacationing German couple and their toddlers, three days into a three-week visit, enjoyed a couple of falafel sandwiches sourced — in connoisseur fashion — from two different nearby carts. "We sometimes eat fast food," the mother said when asked about America's minimum wage protests. She noted, though — as her son waived one of the doled-out protest signs like a paddle — that back home in Germany, that usually meant Chinese take-out for her family as opposed to KFC or McDonald's. (Organizers worked the fringe crowd, handing out buttons, flyers, and signs; they found a taker for a sign reading "Portland Needs a Raise" in the three-year-old boy.) The couple had eaten at food carts the previous day, too, the husband noted, in a pod on SW Fifth Avenue. The day before, it had been Mexican food.

As the protesters filed out of the square to begin their march through Portland's downtown, about a dozen diners still remained along the fringes. One man, who had been sitting directly behind the impromptu stage with his plate from 808 Grinds, shrugged off the chanting as the marchers started down the street: "It's Portland," he said, referring to the city's penchant for public protests. Though he noted that "we have a responsibility to people to pay a living wage" — borrowing one of the group's stronger messages — he admitted he wasn't a fast-food diner himself either, "generally" speaking. (Exceptions: Taco Bell, or anything eaten when drunk.) He could definitely recommend some carts, though: The 808 plate sitting between him and a friend, the hand-pulled Noodle House, and the barbecue cart A Little Bit of Smoke. The latter, he said, is considered a "sleeper" offering around these parts.

The protestors, keeping on the sidewalk, began to stretch two blocks down Washington, parallel to the carts. Proprietors — the ones who were not busy with customers — looked out of their windows quizzically; some passerby on the sidewalk stopped to take a smartphone photo. But some of the inadvertent observers faced forward, toward the menu boards and the faces that emerged from the cart windows, and wondered what was for lunch.

Opening photo by Hillary Dixler/Eater


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