Today, a right wing think tank ran a full page Wall Street Journal ad implying that a rise in the minimum wage would cause fast food workers to be replaced by robots. The prospect of robo-dystopia did not deter the hundreds of chanting protesters who bent the corner of Broadway and Nassau at 11:15 this morning.
Today, the ongoing attempt to organize fast food workers had its biggest day yet, with strikes and protests in 60 cities across the country. One of those cities was New York. At 11 a.m., Nassau Street off Fulton, a narrow block in downtown Manhattan, was quiet, except for the news vans and sullen TV reporters pacing the sidewalk. "I've covered these protest twice already. These are just a fraction of the workers," one hairsprayed reporter said to a bored cameraman. "These jobs are not, to me, full time head of household jobs." The Wendy's across from the Discount Smoke Shop was a graveyard, almost totally empty, with one exit door locked, the manager peering out warily from inside. At 11:15, the echoes of drumbeats reached the restless media crowd. Two blocks down Nassau, a column of marchers— enough to fill a whole horizontal city block, on one sidewalk— streamed forward behind a massive orange "$15 and a Union" banner.
"Hey, Wendy's, you're no good! (Something something)," they chanted. (The acoustics were not the best). Many whistles were blown and signs were waved. A line of police on motor scooters flanked the marchers until they reached the front of the Wendy's, where they launched into a call and response session. "What's disgusting? Union busting! What's outrageous? Poverty wages!"
Nassau Street was cramped even with normal levels of traffic. It was now more cramped. A large black van happened to have parked directly in front of the Wendy's that was being targeted, which had the effect of squeezing the marchers and organizers and cops and reporters and cameramen and photographers all together into one well-packed sausage of protest. A white-shirted cop keeping watch leaned over to one of the organizers and said, "Next time I would pick somewhere with a bigger sidewalk." Across the street, there was a quasi-marching band, courtesy of the remainders of Occupy. Hipster cop, in seersucker pants, was also there, as if to complete the reunion. In the midst of the protest was a lone Drum Guy, tasked with keeping a beat going. Drum Guy was a consistent barrier to one particularly stringent CNN cameraman, who did not care to have Drum Guy in his shot. "Hey! I'm here for you, pal!" the cameraman yelled in stereotypical "mainstream TV outlet camera guy at a protest" fashion. Drum Guy was stoic.
Rynetta Bennett, 23, worked at the Wendy's on Nassau Street. She was scheduled to work today. Instead, she was outside, protesting. She had worked there nearly seven years, but had not yet been promoted to manager. She said she got a ten cent raise about every six months, and no paid vacations. "This is my main income," she said. Many of her fellow workers were supportive of the cause, but decided not to appear with the strikers. "A lot are scared."
Tionnie Cross, 28, worked at a McDonald's in Brooklyn three days a week. Her schedule varies each week, both the days and the times. She and her coworkers all have part time schedules. Some weeks she only brings home about $100. "New York City is pretty tough," she said. "Everything is going up, and the pay is staying." This was her first time coming to a protest. She'd put on lipstick for the occasion, and was carrying a pink purse to offset her striker's t-shirt, and smiling a lot. Her manager had tried to dissuade her coworkers from coming to the march, she said. "I really don't care. I'm fighting for my rights."
Later, I saw her climbing a light pole to wave a sign. She had the spirit.
After about an hour, the whole crowd regrouped and marched around the corner to a Burger King on Fulton. Someone tried to launch into a rendition of "We Shall Overcome," featuring three singers accompanied by 87 screeching whistles. The crowd spilled off the sidewalk. Lives were preserved only by a line of volunteers in orange vests who stood with their arms outstretched like a human net between the marchers and the trucks passing by with a clearance of a few inches. The chanting continued nonstop. If you waited until no trucks were passing by and stepped back into the street a bit and took in the entire scene, you saw young people and old people and black and white and albino people and little kids and grandmothers and entire Mexican families and sharp-looking middle-aged black men and shifty buzzcut white cops with Yankees logo tattoos on their forearms and plastic Barbie doll-esque reporters and sweaty gutter punks all cocooned in whistling and hollering and sign-waving. It was a god damn tableau of New York City. It felt pretty good.
Near the back of the crowd stood Niquasia LeGrand, a dreadlocked 22 year-old from Canarsie who worked at one KFC in Sunset Park, Brooklyn, and another in Queens. To get to work in Brooklyn she takes a bus and three trains. She's paid $7.70 per hour. She gets about 18 hours a week. I asked her about the people, like the TV reporter I saw today, who think that fast food jobs are mostly second jobs and part-time gigs for teens, making the idea of a union and a double-digit wage seem faintly ridiculous. She grew upset, for the first time. "Do people see that the economy is really bad?" she asked. She swept her arm across the entire scene. "Half the people out here got degrees. They have to settle."
Recently, she said, her store had had an electrical fire that caused it to shut down for a month. That was a month in which every employee got zero hours. "There was single mothers and fathers who didn't have a second job," she said. That's what got her thinking about the benefits of a union. And her she was.
"We break our backs every day for that store," she said. "We treat it like a five star store, but it's one star money."