Fast-food workers and UR students launched Metro Justice’s city-wide Fast Food Worker Speaking Tour at the University last Thursday, March 19. Former fast-food worker and current Metro Justice union organizer Kim Ramos, fast-food worker Emily Sullivan, Metro Justice organizing director Colin O’Malley and educational and political chair of Douglass Leadership House Charlise Goodlet led the tour. They advocated for an industry-wide $15 per hour wage and the right to unionize without fear of employer retaliation.
As part of the tour, workers are visiting churches and colleges in the Rochester area to promote an upcoming rally where people will march from UR’s Eastman Quadrangle at 5 p.m. on April 15 as part of the nationwide Fight for $15 campaign. In doing so, they would join demonstrators fighting for a $15 minimum wage on April 15 in cities nationwide. Organizers anticipate that the rally will be a huge day for the movement.
Metro Justice council member Jake Allen noted, “It’s not going to be just fast-food workers […] The Fight for 15 provides an opportunity to galvanize a larger movement of low-wage workers” across different industries. O’Malley and Allen also credited UR’s Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) as one of the local movement’s strongest supporters, with students reaching out to fast-food workers, participating in the media committee and turning out in large numbers to strikes.
The movement argues that since the fast-food industry makes billions of dollars in profits, it can and should increase its workers’ wages to $15 an hour—a “living wage” as opposed to current “poverty wages.” The idea of a “poverty wage” is particularly relevant in Rochester, which the U.S. Census ranked as the nation’s 12th poorest city in 2013, with an overall poverty rate of 35.4 percent.
Economists often question the benefits of a higher minimum wage, as the increase in pay needs to come from somewhere, with potential side effects including higher costs of food, lower incentives for employers to hire more workers and the decreased creation of new jobs. In response to these arguments, O’Malley cited an estimate that the cost of items on the McDonald’s dollar menu would increase by just a few cents to compensate for the increase in pay, and added that an Australian university found that the most comprehensive U.S. studies on minimum wage found few effects on hiring.
Even with these concerns, the two-year-old nationwide Fight for $15 campaign has already had an impact. Seattle, San Francisco and Oakland raised their minimum-wages to $15, $12.25 and $12.25 an hour respectively. However, the Institute for the Study of Labor found that each 10 percent hike in the minimum wage led to one to two percent drops in youth employment. Additionally, a Forbes contributor noted that Seattle restaurants were closing at higher rates than usual as the implementation date of the minimum wage approached.
The effects of a higher minimum wage may affect large fast-food chains differently. Regardless, Rochester fast food workers feel the effects of low pay. Despite being an assistant manager at Wendy’s, Sullivan explained that money is “super tight” and that her work schedule makes it difficult to spend quality time with her kids.
SDS communications chair Jordan Polcyn-Evans added, “So many people who are affected by this are our age and are trying to do the same things that a lot of us, as students at the University of Rochester, have the privilege of doing.”
Lai is a member of
the class of 2018.