'Fight For 15' Struggles To Organize Fast-Food Workers

It's been a year since the Service Employees International Union started organizing protests calling for the fast food industry to adopt a minimum wage of $15 an hour. The union says that workers will strike in 150 cities on Thursday, but, as Anne Mostue of WGBH reports, few workers are actually leaving their shifts.

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Around the country, more than 100 protesters were arrested today at rallies to support wage increases for fast food workers. The events were part of the Fight for 15 campaign. It's an effort to win a $15 an hour minimum wage from some of the nation's largest employers, especially McDonald's. And while it's been involved for more than a year, the Service Employees International Union is having trouble organizing workers who won't or can't leave their shifts. Anne Mostue of WGBH was at one of today's protests.

(SOUNDBITE OF PROTEST)

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: Hold the burgers, hold the fries, make our wages supersize.

ANNE MOSTUE, BYLINE: A total of eight fast food workers were peacefully arrested after sitting in the streets of downtown Boston this afternoon. They came from McDonald's, Burger King, Popeyes and Dunkin' Donuts.

ERICA CONCEPCION: I came here today to fight for what's right. I feel like everybody deserves better.

MOSTUE: Twenty-year-old Erica Concepcion is wearing her brown, pink and orange uniform even though she told her manager at Dunkin' Donuts she was taking the day off. Concepcion makes coffee and breakfast sandwiches for $8.50 cents an hour.

CONCEPCION: Minimum wage nowadays is not cutting it. Gas is expensive. Food is expensive. Sometimes, you know, people don't eat and it's really upsetting.

MOSTUE: Concepcion lives with her mother and brother in Boston and says she wants to contribute more to the family's expenses. Her only concern about a raise - the possibility of cutbacks elsewhere.

CONCEPCION: I'm just afraid that if we do get paid for $15 an hour, a lot of people won't have jobs. Or they'll cut their hours down. And it's not fair.

(SOUNDBITE OF PROTEST)

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: We are ready.

MOSTUE: In Boston, the protesters did not seem to have much of an impact on fast food businesses. Standing outside of Burger King, one customer wasn't sure about $15 an hour. He offered only qualified support.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Yeah, well, that's more than what I get. Well, I think they should get it - that's if they do their job efficiently the way they're supposed to, they're dependable, consistent. I think they deserve it.

MOSTUE: The Fight for 15 rally started at the Massachusetts Statehouse with only eight actual fast food workers. They were flanked by dozens of labor organizers and supporters. Together they marched to a nearby McDonald's. But none of the employees inside joined the protest. Instead, they continued working, declining to speak to reporters except to say they couldn't afford the time off. That's part of what's making this a tough movement. Jeff Hall is a spokesman for the Service Employees International Union.

JEFF HALL: In June, you saw more than a thousand low-wage workers from across industries unite for a series of wage-action rallies across the state. So this campaign - this movement is gaining momentum. And it's not just about fast food workers. You see today that homecare workers are joining the Fight for 15.

MOSTUE: Home healthcare workers spoke in the morning on the Statehouse steps but were not arrested for disorderly conduct. Union organizers say the movement has helped to raise the minimum wage in Connecticut and New Jersey. But the National Restaurant Association calls the Fight for 15 movement, quote, "orchestrated union PR events where the vast majority of participants are activists and paid demonstrators," unquote. For NPR News, I'm Anne Mostue in Boston.

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