Arizona Workers "Fight for $15"
Inside the McDonald's at 1205 South Rural Road in Tempe on Wednesday, dinner guests sipped on soft drinks, munched on burgers, and surfed Facebook on their laptops.
Outside, 600 protesters lapped up against the building, plastering signs to the windows and yelling, "Keep your burgers! Keep your fries! We want wages supersized!"
The crowd would have stormed the counter, no doubt, and shoved their "Where is the money?" and "I'm marching because I want to thrive, not survive" signs right up to the cash register, but the manager saw them snaking their way over from Arizona State University, where they started their march, and locked all the doors.
The rally was one of hundreds organized across the country to protest low wages as a part of the "Fight for $15" campaign, a national movement that advocates for a $15 minimum wage and the right to unionize. Fight for $15 started with 200 New York fast-food employees in 2012 but has since expanded to include workers from a wide variety of backgrounds in 236 cities. The latest protests, which drew tens of thousands, represented the group's biggest move yet.
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In Arizona, grocery clerks, home healthcare specialists, and childcare workers tramped alongside fast-food workers. But the most organized addition to the crusade was a mob of college instructors wearing white and orange bandanas, waving signs inscribed with slogans like "hold college administrators accountable" and "faculty working conditions are student learning conditions." The teachers, rallying for an increase in total compensation per course from a national average of $3,000 to $15,000, even put their own twist on the slogan: Fight for 15K.
"This is not just a fast-food worker movement anymore," said Anabel Maldonado, a community organizer with Living United for Change in Arizona, who helped plan the demonstration. "We are pulling together to fight big corporations. They can afford to pay more and they are just choosing not to."
The professors and the fast-food workers are victims of a steady decline in real wages among low-income earners, said Ken Jacobs, chair of the University of California-Berkeley's Center for Labor Research and Education. Since 2000, the usual weekly earnings of full-time workers in the lower quarter of the earnings distribution, adjusted to compensate for inflation, have fallen 3 percent. Those near the top of the distribution, meanwhile, have seen an increase of nearly 10 percent.
Now, in Arizona, according to research from the Annie E. Casey Foundation, 39 percent of working families make less than 200 percent of the federal poverty line. Half the state's welfare budget goes to support them.
"You don't need to be rolling around in a Rolls-Royce," said Sam Ruckman, a 40-year-old creative writing instructor at Arizona State University, who joined the protest. "But you should be able to pay your rent."
Assuming anybody can find housing for roughly $654 a month, a single adult living in Maricopa County must make about $9.20 an hour to pay for food, medical care, housing, transportation, and other basic needs, according to the Living Wage Project, an initiative of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. To add one child, workers need to earn $19.87. For two children: $25.43.
The median hourly earnings for all occupations in Arizona is $16.46 per hour, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Fast-food workers make a median hourly wage of $8.88 — just 83 cents above the state-mandated mandated minimum. The median income for home healthcare workers is $11.12. For, retail salespeople it's $10.00.
After 10 years cooking and cleaning for a Phoenix McDonald's, Marta Arzola, 40, makes $8.75. To feed her five children, Arzola, a single mother who doesn't speak English, often turns to the food bank. Twice in the last year, she's had her electricity and gas turned off because she couldn't pay the bills.
"I want to help build a better future for my children, help them save money for college," she said. "But my wages are too low. I can't even keep up."
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Amid employee unrest, a number of national chains, including Walmart and T.J. Maxx, have raised wages for their lowest-paid employees in recent months. McDonald's announced April 1 that, starting in July, the company will pay workers $1 more than the locally mandated minimum wage. Its new benefit package also will include paid time off and college tuition assistance.
"We've listened to our employees and learned that — in addition to increased wages — paid personal leave and financial assistance for completing their education would make a real difference in their careers and lives," CEO Steve Easterbrook said in a news release.
But workers aren't satisfied.
"It just feels like an attempt to buy us off," said Peiyi Zhong, 22, who got a job at McDonald's in January after she couldn't find work in medical assisting, a certification she spent nine months and $20,000 to earn.
Zhong hopes McDonald's will be a stepping stone to more, but, she said, "I feel really stuck. I make $8 an hour and I have student loan debt to pay off."
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