According to a random unscientific survey of fast-food workers who turned out for a massive August 29 Fight for Fifteen strike rally on the North Avenue bridge over Interstate 43 in Milwaukee, 75-80 percent take the bus to get to work, because “we can’t afford to buy a car on $7.25 an hour.” One older woman recounted that a co-worker walks from 49th Street and Fond du Lac Avenue to work at 76th and Appleton for a five hour shift.
Rally organizers with Raise Up Milwaukee announced that workers in 72 cities across the country were participating in the one-day strike action, including three in Wisconsin: Milwaukee, Madison, and Wausau. On a short march from North Avenue and Martin Luther King Blvd, passing traffic was cheerfully supportive, honking horns and pulling over to ask for more information. Arrangements were made to rally on the bridge because it sits between a Wendy’s on the east end and a McDonald’s to the west, two iconic chains targeted by the demand for $15 an hour wages and union contracts.
One Burger King employee said when his old car broke down, he couldn’t afford another, and is taking a second job. Another bus rider said a 26 year old co-worker at McDonald’s on Brown Deer Road has been working for five years with no raise, while a McDonald’s employee at Juneau and 35th Street recently got a 15 cent an hour raise after five years. Every fast food worker asked said between 3 out of 20 and 5 out of 25 employees where they worked drove a car. The rest rely on the sharply reduced routes and schedules of Milwaukee County Transit System.
State Senator Nikia Harris, representing the 6th district where the rally was held, said the demand for $15 an hour would “make Milwaukee’s economy stronger for everyone,” noting that current wages leave families unable to pay for transportation, food, and other necessities. Harris decried that many workers present are paid so little they “qualify for food stamps, when you’re working, and need government assistance to pay for childcare, when you’re working.”
Harris has been a consistent and persistent advocate of dedicated funding for public transit during her years on the county board, and as a state legislator. Introducing Harris, a rally organizer recalled her own grandmother moved to the city “when Milwaukee was the best place in the country for black folks, because they turned bad factory jobs into good union jobs.” When Martin Luther King called for a $2.00 per hour minimum wage fifty years ago, at the recently commemorated 1963 march on Washington, D.C., she added, that was the equivalent of $15 in today’s inflated U.S. currency.
The effort to organize fast food workers was launched following the Black Friday strikes by Wal-Mart employees in November 2012, immediately after Thanksgiving. Jerry Sinowitz, representing Wal-Mart employees at the South 27th Street store in Milwaukee, told the August 29 rally that after nine years he has gotten his rate of pay up to $13 an hour, but daily lack of respect for employees is as great a concern as pay levels.