With exactly one year to go before the 2016 elections, low-wage, fast-food workers hope to send a powerful political message on Tuesday with protests scheduled at restaurants in 270 U.S. cities.
The cooks and cashiers will walk off their jobs beginning at 6 am in cities like New York, Chicago, Kansas City and Atlanta to highlight their call for $15-an-hour wages and the right to establish unions.
Similar protests will occur throughout the day and organizers expect low-paid workers from a variety of industries to join the call for higher wages at Tuesday afternoon rallies in hundreds of other cities.
Nearly 64 million Americans earn less than $15 an hour.
By holding today's protests on the same day as the national elections in 2016, organizers hope candidates will see that underpaid workers are a potent political force.
On Tuesday evening in Milwaukee, protesters will march at the Milwaukee Theatre where the Republican presidential debate will be held. Fast-food workers held a similar day of national protests in April.
“Workers need a raise now," said a statement by Latifah Trezvant, a McDonald's restaurant worker in Kansas City, Mo., who earns $8.65 an hour. "We've got one message for anyone running for office in 2016, whether it's for dogcatcher or president: Come get our vote. Stand up for $15 an hour and the right to a union, and we'll stand behind you."
The growing effort to boost the wages and bargaining clout of low-wage workers took off in November 2012 when 200 fast food employees in New York City left their jobs in protest, calling for $15 hourly wages and the right to unionize.
Since then, strong financial support from the Service Employees International Union has helped the “Fight for $15” movement expand to home care workers, retail employees, child care workers, airport service workers and even adjunct college professors seeking $15,000 per course.
The effort has scored some notable victories. Last month, the University of California system implemented a new minimum wage policy that hikes the pay of thousands of direct and contract employees to at least $15 an hour by 2017.
Cities like Los Angeles, Seattle, Oakland and San Francisco have also approved phased-in minimum wage hikes to $15 an hour.
And in September, New York became the first state to establish a $15 minimum wage. New York Governor Andrew Cuomo approved the measure, which applies only to fast-food workers at chain restaurants.
Cuomo made the move after bypassing the state legislature and acting instead on the recommendation of a state wage board that called for the pay hike. The new pay rate will be phased in over three years in New York City and over six years in the rest of the state.
Critics warn that raising wages for low-skilled workers might lead employers to eliminate positions or cut hours for the very people the higher pay is designed to help. The Employment Policies Institute, a research organization, on Monday released a survey of economists that found 72 percent oppose a $15 federal minimum wage.
A report earlier this year by the National Employment Law Project, an advocacy organization, found that 42 percent of U.S. workers earn less than $15 an hour.
And six occupations with median hourly wages of less than $15 are among the 10 slated to add the most jobs in coming years. Those jobs are retail salespeople, food preparation and service workers, freight and stock workers, janitors, nursing assistants and home care workers.