NEW YORK — Protesters clamoring for higher fast-food wages were arrested for blocking traffic during nationwide demonstrations Thursday, part of an effort by labor organizers to raise the profile of a movement that began in 2012.
At a McDonald’s restaurant in Times Square, at least 19 people were arrested, including 14 men and five women, the New York Police Department said. Protesters were taken into custody for disorderly conduct when they blocked vehicles in front of the 42nd Street restaurant, Officer Arlene Muniz said.
The arrests were a coordinated strategy to escalate the campaign, said Kendall Fells, an organizing director with Fast Food Forward in New York. Rallies demanding a $15-an-hour wage for fast-food workers were planned in 150 U.S. cities Thursday in what may be the largest labor action since the demonstrations began almost two years ago. More than 3 million workers prepare and serve food in the U.S., and they make $9.08 an hour on average, according to government data.
“I’m out here trying to have a better salary to pay for college,” said Christopher Espinosa, a protester who works a few blocks north of Times Square and took an unpaid day off to be at the demonstration. The 19-year-old, a freshman at Berkeley College who lives in the Bronx, has worked for McDonald’s for more than a year, with his salary increasing to $8 from $7.25 in that time.
“These companies are making a lot of money — they can afford it,” Espinosa said.
On the South Side of Chicago, about 20 workers sat in the street near McDonald’s and Burger King restaurants this morning. They formed a line blocking traffic and sang, “We shall not be moved.” Police pulled sitting protesters up and off of the street.
In all, 19 people were detained, ticketed and released for causing a disturbance and disrupting traffic, said Jose Estrada, a spokesman for the Chicago Police Department.
Corderal Love, a 24-year-old McDonald’s restaurant employee wearing a red “Fight For $15″ shirt, joined hundreds of other strikers in Chicago. He said he needs higher wages to pay for public transportation and clothes for his two children.
“You can’t afford to live in Chicago when your income is only $6,000 to $7,000 a year,” he said. Love has been working at McDonald’s for about a year and a half and makes $8.25 an hour. He’s looking for a second job.
Detroit Police Department spokesman Adam Madera said six people were arrested on outstanding warrants at a protest outside a McDonald’s on Mack Avenue. An additional 24 protesters were ticketed for disorderly conduct and released, he said.
Heidi Barker, a spokeswoman for Oak Brook, Illinois-based McDonald’s, said there have been no reports of the protests disrupting service at restaurants.
“These are not ‘strikes’ but are staged demonstrations in which people are being transported to fast-food restaurants,” she said. “We have received reports that some participants are being paid, up to $500, to protest and get arrested.”
While workers are not getting paid to protest, some are receiving money for lost wages, said Fells.
“It’s an age-old tradition in the union movement that workers who are losing pay by going on strike get support from other workers through strike funds,” he said. “Other workers are supporting strikers through a strike fund as they have since this movement started.”
Burger King Worldwide Inc., the second-largest burger chain, said worker pay was up to the owners of individual restaurants. Franchisees, who own and operate almost all of its U.S. stores, make scheduling, wage and other employment decisions, Alix Salyers, a spokeswoman for the Miami-based company, said in an email.
A wage of $15 an hour would be about 65 percent more than the national average, based on Labor Department statistics. Today’s nationwide strike is being supported by the Service Employees International Union. Mary Kay Henry, president of SEIU, joined protesters in Oakland, California.
The demonstrations began in New York in November 2012, when about 200 workers walked off the job. Protesters targeted the McDonald’s corporate headquarters for another demonstration in May, prompting the company to tell employees to stay home.
Union organizers also celebrated a victory in July when the National Labor Relations Board’s general counsel determined that McDonald’s has joint responsibility with franchise owners for how employees are treated. If upheld, the decision may bring McDonald’s to the table during collective bargaining, making unions more powerful.
The Times Square McDonald’s was chosen for a New York protest because of its prominent location, said Fells, 34. After previous demonstrations failed to draw much of a response from fast-food companies, workers knew they had to step up their tactics, Fells said.
“They were willing to put their bodies on the line,” he said. “They feel like the industry hasn’t responded yet and they wanted to get their attention.”