Fast food workers protest in South Florida for higher pay; 7 arrested

Laura Rollins, 62, lives in a one-bedroom apartment with her son and ex-husband to make ends meet on her $8.35-an-hour McDonald’s salary. Without insurance, she can’t afford heath care. What she needs, she says, is a raise.

Rollins was one of about 100 fast food workers and community supporters who marched, chanted and picketed in the rain on Thursday morning in South Florida, as part of a nationwide movement to demand higher wages.

“We are the union, the mighty, mighty union,” they cheered and yelled as they marched to a Burger King and a McDonald’s on Northeast 167th Street in North Miami Beach. The rain did not deter the protesters as they passed around ponchos and pulled out umbrellas.

Seven people were arrested for blocking the road: Rollins; Anthony Roberson, 18; Shontavia Myers, 20; Elvis Manuel Valdez Jr., 19; Monique Logan, 19; Tiffany Leggett, 23; and Ericka Ward, 24. All were released within an hour.

Nationwide, police handcuffed dozens of protesters in cities around the country during protests held in about 150 cities, in the latest effort to get McDonald’s, Burger King and other fast-food businesses to raise workers’ hourly wages to $15.

“This entire movement is about workers rising up and fighting for a minimum wage of $15 and the right to unionize without retaliation,” said Tobias Packer, Miami-based spokesman for the Service Employees International Union, which supported the fast workers and helped them organize the protests.

Roberson, one of those arrested, has worked for two years at a McDonald’s in Miami Lakes as a cook and food assembler, and makes $7.93 an hour. He lives with his mother, and helps her pay the household bills.

A raise to $15 an hour would ease the financial pressure.

“It can help me because I can pay all the bills with one check and still have money left over,” Roberson said. “I can supply more food in the house, pay the bills and take care of myself and take care of my mom. It would be a real benefit.”

Rollins, a grill cook at a McDonald’s in Miramar, who was also arrested, told a similar story of financial strain. She said she lives in a one-room apartment in Ft. Lauderdale with her son and ex-husband because she can’t afford the $840 rent on her own. She sleeps in the bedroom, her son sleeps on a cot, and her ex-husband sleeps on the couch.

Because she makes only $8.35 an hour, she no longer has life or health insurance and many of her teeth are missing from dental neglect.

“I haven’t seen a doctor since I started working for McDonald’s,” she said during the protest, adding that she previously worked at a now-closed pen and pencil factory in Hollywood for $11.75 an hour.

Rollins, Roberson and five other workers sat on a crosswalk with linked arms and signs, one reading “Supersize my pay.” Just before 1 p.m., a Miami-Dade Police lieutenant announced the group had five minutes to move to the sidewalk before officers would arrest them.

The crowd drowned him out, chanting, “The whole world is watching.”

In other cities, including New York and Detroit, police handcuffed several protesters Thursday morning as they blocked traffic during the protests, which were planned by labor organizers as part of the “Fight for $15” campaign. Since the protests began in late 2012, organizers have switched up their tactics every few months.

Before Thursday’s protests, organizers said they planned to engage in nonviolent civil disobedience to draw more attention to the cause. In the past, supporters have shown up at a McDonald’s shareholder meeting and held strikes. The idea of civil disobedience arose in July when 1,300 workers held a convention in Chicago.

The movement, which is backed financially by the SEIU and others, has gained national attention at a time when the wage gap between the poor and the rich has become a hot political issue. Many fast-food workers do not make much more than the federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour, which adds up to about $15,000 a year for 40 hours a week.

President Barack Obama mentioned the campaign earlier this week at a Labor Day appearance in Milwaukee.

“There’s a national movement going on made up of fast food workers organizing to lift wages so they can provide for their families with pride and dignity,” Obama said, as he pushed Congress to raise the minimum wage. “If I were busting my butt in the service industry and wanted an honest day’s pay for an honest day’s work, I’d join a union.”

The National Restaurant Association said in a statement that the protests are an attempt by unions to “boost their dwindling membership.” The industry lobbying group said it hopes organizers will be respectful to customers and workers during the protests.

Union organizers expected thousands to show up to Thursday’s protests around the country. Previously, turnout has been fairly minimal in many places, including South Florida. In an effort to get more people involved, organizers asked other service workers to join protests and added more cities than it previously had.

By late Thursday morning, protesters in some cities were standing in front of fast-food restaurants, chanting for higher pay and holding signs in both English and Spanish. Some were hauled away by police for blocking streets. Police handcuffed about a dozen people who wouldn’t leave in Chicago.

In New York, at least three people wearing McDonald’s uniforms were taken by police officers after standing in the middle of a busy street near Times Square. Nineteen were arrested for blocking traffic.

About two dozen protesters were handcuffed in Detroit after they wouldn’t move out of a street near a McDonald’s restaurant. And police in Las Vegas also handcuffed some demonstrators, giving about 10 of them citations to appear in court.

This report was supplemented with information from The Associated Press.