The latest round of protests for higher fast-food wages hit New York City today, but they could have been mistaken for just about any other gathering of the city’s progressive coalition. I ran into the 200 or so people (by one organizer’s estimate) in downtown Manhattan, after they’d been shuffled by leaders from Times Square to downtown Brooklyn, over to Upper Manhattan and back down to City Hall, popping up to chant in front of apparently random fast-food restaurants before packing up, hitting the subway, and heading to the next establishment.
The group, however tired from their daylong journey, chanted loudly and brimmed with enthusiasm, but the effect was still relatively underwhelming — even if every protester there were a fast-food worker, they would represent a tiny minority of the profession in New York City.
Coming to their ultimate destination at Foley Square near City Hall, the protesters, police officers, and media tag-a-longs (a significant minority of the total group) comfortably fit into the southern half of the public space.
The protest — and it was certainly a protest, not a strike or a picket line, since the easy majority of the marchers, by my estimation, were not actually fast-food workers — ostensibly was aimed at a $15 an hour wage and unionization rights for fast-food employees, but the group contained such an array of interests and causes that it resembled the eclecticism of Occupy Wall Street more than a single-issue movement.
“I’m here marching for a living wage across the United States and worker protection and economic human rights in the workplace,” Reuben, a hospital worker from New Jersey, told me. He said he’s been connected with Occupy Wall Street for about two years now. A man from the United Federation of Teachers told me that his group was there to “get a fair contract from the city.” Next, a mobilization coordinator for the AFL-CIO’s Local 1180 told me that her group was “marching for retroactive pay increases in contracts” but of course she supported all of the teachers and fast-food workers and those who make minimum wage as well.
Finding actual fast-food workers was harder. When I asked groups of activists if any of them worked for a fast-food chain, most silently shook their heads. Three people even tried to help me find one. One of these Good Samaritans moved on with the march after a few minutes of unsuccessful searching, and the two separate guides each led me to the same person. The few other fast-food workers I encountered were cornered by other reporters anxiously scribbling.
Alvin Major, a KFC employee currently earning $7.50 an hour, was one of the few middle-aged fast-food workers I came across. “I just need a livable wage, a wage that I could survive on,” he told me. “I’ve got four kids, 18, 16, 14, and 12. The money that I earn can’t pay for rent. I have to be subsidizing myself with food stamps and so on.” When I asked him how much he though he should earn working his job at KFC, he told me, to start, $15 an hour, but that he wanted a union as well, to eventually negotiate more.
With the groups sufficiently assembled, leaders, such as Laquashia of the ACORN offshoot New York Communities for Change, led people in series of call-and-response chants demanding justice and decrying Wall Street (“banks got bailed out” while “we got sold out”). After several rounds of invocations for “justice” and “equality,” condemnations of the One Percent, calls for full-day, universal pre-school, and more, I eventually left, unsure if I had observed a demonstration for fast-food workers or an Occupy Wall Street reunion.