This Is What $15 an Hour Looks Like

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On a crisp November morning in Oakland, 50 people dressed in red T-shirts burst into a McDonald’s, bringing breakfast orders to a halt. From behind the counter, several cashiers gaped at the scene, where an orderly line of customers had been replaced by a rowdy crew that bounced and shouted, calling for the restaurant to raise its wages to $15 an hour. A supervisor whipped out her cell phone and began filming. The chant, directed at the workers, grew louder: “Come on out—we’ve got your back!” After giving it some thought, three female employees walked past their supervisor, clocked out, and joined the protesters. The crowd erupted in cheers.

The group, which included striking fast-food workers from across the East Bay, gathered afterward in the parking lot to celebrate. They would hit half a dozen restaurants before the day was over, part of a nationwide movement that has grown to attract low-wage workers across multiple industries. Among the strikers was Shardeja Woolridge, who works part-time at a McDonald’s in the nearby city of Hayward, where she lives with her mother in a two-bedroom apartment. Woolridge earns $9 an hour, California’s minimum wage; her mom receives disability benefits. It’s not nearly enough. They’ve received eviction notices and had their electricity shut off. The 19-year-old recently enrolled at Berkeley City College but struggled to pay for textbooks. “I can hardly buy my own soap or deodorant,” she says. Behind her, workers hoist a red-and-black banner that reads #fightfor15.

I ask Woolridge what might be different if she made $15 an hour. “Whoa,” she says. “Fifteen.” Her eyes turn to the cloudless sky. “Whoa,” she repeats, her voice trailing off. She could help pay the rent. She could stock the fridge with food. She could afford Wi-Fi. Above all, she could finally stop fighting so much with her mom. “We are constantly butting heads,” Woolridge says. “She doesn’t understand that I don’t have money. I’m like, ‘This is really all I make,’ but she can’t get it.”

The movement for a $15 minimum wage began three years earlier, on a chilly fall morning in 2012, when 200 fast-food workers walked off the job in New York City. Their demand was audacious: $15 an hour was more than twice what many of them earned. But more strikes and protests followed, with the movement spreading quickly, driven by workers like Woolridge. What had started as a targeted campaign under the slogan “Fast Food Forward” grew to include low-wage workers across numerous industries.

“Movements are built on big, bold, aspirational demands,” says David Rolf, president of SEIU 775, who led the fight in 2013 for the $15 minimum-wage ordinance in SeaTac, Washington, home of the Seattle-Tacoma International Airport. Rolf credits the Fight for $15 with shaping a “monumental shift in political discourse.” It’s not just that Bernie Sanders is championing the cause; during a recent Republican presidential debate, the first question to candidates was whether they supported the increase. The Fight for $15 has become the rare labor fight that is too big to ignore.

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