Workers, Activists Rally For $15 Minimum Wage During Day Of Disruption

Nov 29, 2016

*UPDATED: 8:20 p.m.

The Service Employees International Union targeted McDonald's restaurants and the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center with marches demanding a $15 minimum wage and union representation.

The union contends UPMC shuttle bus workers have also gone on strike seeking union representation.

UPMC, which is western Pennsylvania's dominant hospital network, had previously announced plans to increase the minimum starting wage for entry-level jobs at most facilities to $15 per hour by 2021.

But the union says UPMC needs to move faster and accused the network of trying to silence workers and union organizers.

In a statement, UPMC said it does not prohibit organizing activities among workers, but that SEIU’s organizing efforts have been rejected by its employees.

Protesters gather inside the East Liberty McDonald's, chanting, "We work, we sweat, put 15 on our check," on Tuesday, Nov. 29, 2016.
Credit Virginia Alvino Young / 90.5 WESA

“The vast majority of UPMC employees are focused on providing high quality care to our patients and they know that the wages, comprehensive benefit packages and general working environment throughout UPMC are the best in the region and that further wage structure increases are already coming, all without paying union dues.”

Organizers began their "Day of Disruption" marches at a McDonald's in Pittsburgh's East Liberty neighborhood Tuesday morning.

Dozens of employees and "Fight for 15" campaign organizers entered the restaurant, chanting and holding signs until police arrived and they continued their protest outside.

Aaron McCoullum has worked at the Penn Avenue McDonald's location full-time since 2011 and makes $7.85 an hour. He said his fiancée also works, but it’s hard for them to meet ends meet.

“We pitch in, we do tag team these bills, but it’s not enough, it really isn’t," he said. "And I’m not into the street. I work. I’d rather work. It’s more respectable.”

McDonald's spokesperson Terri Hickey said the company is invested in its employees.

"McDonald’s takes seriously our role in helping strengthen communities as we and our franchisees separately employ hundreds of thousands of people, providing many with their very first job," Hickey said. "We invest in opportunities for McDonald’s employees to finish high school, earn a college degree and develop the valuable skills necessary to build successful careers even beyond our restaurants."

At noon, striking workers and supporters in the community gathered at Schenley Plaza in Oakland for a luncheon organized by the activist group One Pittsburgh.

Protesters gather at the East Liberty McDonald's to rally for higher wages on Tuesday, Nov. 29, 2016.
Credit Virginia Alvino Young / 90.5 WESA

Organizers said the meal was meant to highlight the interconnected nature of systems of oppression along lines of class, race, sexuality, gender, gender identity and ability, a concept known as intersectionality. While workers and activists ate lunch from nearby Conflict Kitchen, they were surrounded by posters of notable social justice “ancestors” including abolitionist Frederick Douglass, lawyer Anita Hill and disability rights advocate Jim Charlton.

“At the end of the day we’re all fighting for the same things,” said Angel Gober, a community organizer with One Pittsburgh. “We wanted to highlight that a lot of times all of this work intersects.”

Among those supporting the workers was retired Methodist Pastor Ron Wanless, of Ligonier, who referenced the book of Matthew when explaining the motivation for his involvement with the Day of Disruption.

“As you do it unto the least of these you do it unto me, or as you don’t do it unto the least of these, you don’t do it to me,” he said. “To mistreat workers, to allow sexism and racism to live in our culture is to slap Jesus in the face.”

Around 4 p.m., approximately 200 people rallied outside the federal building on Liberty Avenue in downtown Pittsburgh.

Erika Lee, 35, of McKeesport, said she has worked as a shuttle driver for UPMC for two years, taking home around $1,600 a month. She said about half of shuttle drivers did not show up to work today.

“The other ones who did not stand up, it’s because of that intimidation, that’s because they’re afraid,” she said. “They don’t want to be retaliated against, so they decided to go to work today. But that doesn’t mean they don’t feel the same way we do, because they do.”

Linda Zinkham, 58, of Aliquippa, is an event planner in the catering department at Giant Eagle Market District Settler’s Ridge. She encouraged other low-wage workers to fight for their right to unionize. She said when workers in her department decided to join the United Food and Commercial Workers union, they were faced with intimidation from management.

“I was shocked by Giant Eagle’s response,” she told the crowd. “They began harassing us and trying to scare me and my coworkers. They sent dozens of purposely worded misleading mailings to our houses trashing the unions.”

She said workers plan to file a complaint with the National Labor Relations Board.

The crowd then marched to the McDonald’s restaurant at Forbes Avenue and Stanwix Street, where a group of 19 protestors sat down in the middle of the intersection. After a few minutes, police warned them they would be arrested if they did not move. When they remained seated, officers approached each person individually, helping many to their feet and escorted them to a waiting Port Authority bus where they were processed, cited with obstructed a roadway and released.

Fast-food restaurant workers and home and child-care workers also rallied in other cities including Chicago, Detroit, Los Angeles and New York on Tuesday morning.

About 25 of the 350 protesters in New York City have been arrested. Detroit police say they arrested about 40 protesters who blocked traffic. And nearly three dozen protesters have been arrested in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.