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Thousands of Restaurant Workers Protested Wages, Immigrant Rights on May Day

“All we’re asking is for the current president to treat people like human beings.”

Protesters march through the streets of Philadelphia, May Day 2017
Amy McKeever

For 131 years American workers have taken to the streets on May Day, May 1, to march for fair labor conditions. This year’s strikes and organized rallies, which included thousands of restaurant employees, aimed to draw attention to low wages and a lack of union benefits.

Two prominent workers’ groups, Fight for $15 and Restaurant Opportunities Center United (ROC United), threw their support behind the general strikes. There was an added element when organizers behind A Day Without an Immigrant joined the May Day protests in solidarity with a workforce that has felt passed over or unfairly targeted by the Trump administration.

Though demonstrations took place in cities across the country, organizers behind ROC United held rallies and strikes in the Bay Area, Chicago, Detroit, Philadelphia, LA, Seattle, and D.C. In every city, restaurants got involved too. At least 10 restaurants in Philadelphia closed their doors yesterday, according to Eater Philly, and dozens, including Roy Choi and Daniel Patterson’s Locol, closed for business in San Francisco. In Detroit, restaurants said they would not open in support of their immigrant workers and the surrounding communities. Here’s a closer look at the scenes in Philadelphia, Chicago, and Detroit.


Protesters organize in Detroit, May Day 2017
Brenna Houck

More than 200 people gathered at an amphitheater at Clark Park in Detroit’s Southwest neighborhood on Monday to demonstrate in solidarity with protests across the country calling for an end to deportations, the Muslim ban, and the border wall. The May Day demonstration drew a diverse crowd that included independent protesters, representatives from community organizers Michigan United, the Restaurant Workers Opportunities Center, Michigan Muslim Community Council, ACLU, SEIU, EmergeUSA, and the AFL-CIO.

Speakers at the podium roused the crowd in chants while delivering speeches that demanded greater respect and protections for immigrants and minorities as well as fair wages for workers, union rights, and benefits. The event culminated with a march down West Vernor Highway towards Cesar Chavez Academy through one of the city’s largest immigrant communities.

Brenna Houck

Candace Cooper has been a member of ROC United-MI for seven years. She arrived at the event with more than 12 fellow members. “We are here on behalf of and in solidarity with international workers, immigrant workers, and definitely we are in support of restaurant workers,” she says. “We are here to support and engage and encourage other people to get involved.” Cooper points to ROC United’s recent involvement in the sanctuary restaurant movement, a designation that protects workers and customers against harassment of any kind, as one way her group is working to protect immigrants from threats of deportation. “Any person can come and work and not be intimidated or bothered by ICE and they can be protected and supported through ROC-MI,” she says.

The group is also ramping up its efforts to eliminate the tipped minimum wage in Michigan and campaigning for benefits like paid family leave.

Brenna Houck

Wearing her White Castle apron and shirt, Patricia Mayers attended the May Day protest with a large contingent of more than 40 people from Detroit’s Fight for 15 worker’s rights campaign. Although she is from Detroit, Mayers joined the group a little over a year ago and says she’s since traveled to demonstration throughout the country including ones in Virginia and Chicago.

Mayers works 40 hours a week at her fast food job where she earns $9.50 an hour. Although it’s above Michigan’s minimum wage, Mayers says her take home is still not enough to support her four children. “I'm tired of all these low wages,” she says. “We can't even afford childcare. We can't even afford housing.”

She adds that she regularly struggles to pay for basic necessities like rent. “You gross $400 you still [only] bring home $300. How is that when your rent is $700 or $800 a month?” Mayers says. “How is that a way of living? It's no way of living at all.” — Brenna Houck, Detroit


May Day has a rich history in Chicago, where the labor protests originated 131 years ago. The original march was intended to raise awareness of and support for an eight-hour work day. Organizers of the march this year said there was more of an energy due to recent White House policies; this drew larger crowds than usual. The day’s activities began with a march through Pilsen, one of Chicago’s largest Hispanic enclaves. The AP estimated 20,000 workers participated and members included the Restaurant Opportunity Center, Fight for $15, and other unions.

Ashok Selvam

Chicago’s local restaurant world remained divided on Monday. Part of it was due to the fact that restaurant staffers often get Monday off in general. Another factor was a major distraction: The James Beard Foundation Awards took place in Chicago on the same day.

Ashok Selvam

The numbers from the march decreased as the day continued; rains subdued protesters at a Monday afternoon rally at Chicago's Daley Plaza. Signs lauding Chicago’s status as a Sanctuary City were also raised in addition to messaging promoting workers’ rights.

Ashok Selvam

In Illinois, many unions are furious at Gov. Bruce Rauner. The Republican one-termer has sought to limit union power. One sign juxtaposed Rauner's face with Montgomery Burns, the cold-hearted billionaire from The Simpsons.

Restaurant workers were joined by nurses, teachers, and other protesters dressed in customary pro-union red. — Ashok Selvam, Chicago


Workers listening to a speech during a rally in Philadelphia, May Day 2017
Amy McKeever

Hundreds of workers marched through the streets of Philadelphia on Monday afternoon, convening at City Hill for a rally in celebration of International Workers’ Day. Although immigration policy — and particularly Philadelphia’s status as a sanctuary city — were front-and-center, this May Day demonstration homed in on the importance of intersectionality in the fight for the dignity and rights of workers.

“I’m here for workers’ rights. I’m here for immigration. I’m here for black lives. Anybody who’s not on the winning team,” said Kimberly Perez, a cook for the Philadelphia airport’s OTG Management group. Frustrated with the high cost of living in Philadelphia, Perez found someone to trade shifts with her so she could join the UNITE HERE hospitality union as it wound its way past the vegetable stands of the Italian Market. She wants to fight for a decent quality of life.

Amy McKeever

Daisy Cruz, Mid-Atlantic district leader of the Service Employees International Union, says this was a motivating factor for a lot of the marchers. “People come here because they want to live the American Dream,” Cruz said. “All we’re asking is for the current president to treat people like human beings.”

Speakers at the City Hall rally urged workers to remain a united front toward that end. “When you’re Latinx, black or brown, there’s targets on your back,” Abdul-Aliy Muhammad of the Black and Brown Workers Collective told the crowd. He argued that the government’s immigration policies are racist (“ICE is not running into Irish pubs”) and he advocated for an expansion of Philadelphia’s sanctuary city policy to establish it as a safe place for everyone from immigrants to trans women in the workplace.

Amy McKeever

City councilwoman Helen Gym promised to defend and build upon the sanctuary city policy. “We’re going to pass resolutions that talk about how wrong it is to criminalize the act of work,” she said. “When we deny people the right to earn a living, we force them into the shadows where unscrupulous employers are exploiting them at rates that are hurting not only them but other American workers. And we’re going to stand up for the rights of all of our people to walk through this city with dignity and humanity and with love and freedom.”

Restaurants had a role to play in the day, too. As Tommy Ramirez watched these speeches he carried a sign declaring that undocumented immigrants deserve a pathway to legal status given their “fundamental” importance to the multi-billion-dollar restaurant economies in Pennsylvania and the United States. Ramirez — who came to the U.S. when he was 10 years old — used to work as a busboy and a cook in restaurants alongside many undocumented workers. “Without us, those restaurants would not survive,” he said.

Ramirez saw the deportation fears his parents struggled with when he was a child. Now, he just wants to fight for his rights. And he’s glad to see a diverse group doing that together. “It shows that we’re the majority,” he said, further explaining that the power of that majority can stand against the policies of elected officials. “It’s a good thing that we are coming together: black, hispanic, everybody.” — Amy McKeever, Philadelphia

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