A handful of fast food workers walked off their jobs in Austin, Texas yesterday, the closest thing our city had to a true May Day celebration in the streets. It happened as part of a global one-day strike led by the Fight For 15 movement. Dozens of workers and allies gathered outside a Popeye’s Kitchen on the east side of town, along a strip of fast food restaurants that cluster near the intersection of Martin Luther King, JR Boulevard and Airport Boulevard. This strip of strip mall purgatory could be any arterial street in America, reeking of fry grease and automotive exhaust.
After a member of the local clergy led us in prayer, we heard from several workers. The star of the show was Alonzo Simms. If the press release I got handed hadn’t told me he was 47-years old, I’d never have known — he had more energy than me, despite being older by over a decade. He told us about working sometimes seven days a week at $8.25/hour, with no raises in sight. He’s raising two kids on that salary and struggling to make ends meet, while the CEOs of fast food chains make sometimes as much as thousands of dollars per hour.
After his story he led the crowd into one fast food restaurant after another. Neither the protesters nor the media (with multiple local TV stations putting in an appearance) were phased by the complaints of the store managers, who made obligatory declarations that we had to leave or shut off our cameras. In each restaurant we chanted before Simms spoke directly to the workers. Some were supportive, others indifferent or mildly hostile. In the middle of a school day, these were not the teenagers that supposedly make up the bulk of fast food workers, but people from a range of ages and races.
Other than the brave efforts of local anti-deportation activists, this was some of the boldest action I’ve seen in Austin since last summer’s pro-choice protests at the Capitol. We’re a long way from Seattle, where $15/hour may become reality. One construction worker objected that he handles specialized equipment and still doesn’t make that much — a sign that to many, these protests seem like fantasy, rather than a movement with the potential to elevate us all.
But these workers seem determined, and if the movement grows — if we strike for more than a day – it’ll be days like this that got us there.