Berkeley demonstration for $15 at site of 60’s Free Speech Movement

BERKELEY, Calif. – Low wage workers – fast food, child and home care, security and more – were joined by dozens of area unions and community organizations Apr. 15 in a massive demonstration for $15 and a union. The action began with a rally at historic Sproul Plaza on the University of California, Berkeley campus, site of the famed Free Speech Movement in the mid-1960s.

Participants came from actions all over the San Francisco Bay area earlier in the day, including San Jose and surrounding South Bay communities, San Francisco, and Marin County. Many of those actions targeted McDonald’s outlets.  

Mayor Ruth Atkins of neighboring Emeryville drew cheers from the rally crowd as she announced that on July 1, the city’s minimum wage would rise to $14.42 an hour. Other area communities including Oakland, San Francisco and Berkeley, have raised or are in process to increase their minimum wages, while State Sen. Mark Leno, D-San Francisco, has introduced a bill to raise the state’s minimum.

Speaking in English and Spanish, Mary Kay Henry, president of the Service Employees International Union, called the Berkeley action “the exclamation point” in the Fight for $15 and said her union was participating in over 200 cities around the country.

Along with statements of support, including Alameda Labor Council Executive Director Josie Camacho’s pledge that the county’s 100,000 union members stand solidly with the campaign, came calls to bring struggles together across traditional organizing lines.

Sheila Tully, president of the California Faculty Association at San Francisco State University, drew attention to a low-wage constituency not always recognized: part-time, adjunct college and university lecturers, many of whom she said earn less than $15 an hour.

“I earned my Masters and my Ph.D. at UC Berkeley,” Tully said, “and I can barely make a living in San Francisco.” Her union stands in solidarity with fast food and retail workers, and with all faculty members, she said. “We know when we stand together, fight together, we win.”

A related message was brought by Devonte Jackson of the Black Lives Matter movement. “We’re seeing that not only are black people being murdered by police on the street, but we’re seeing state-sanctioned violence in the gentrification and displacement of our communities, in income inequality, inadequate public schools, and a less than 3 percent black student population on this campus.”

Jackson urged “organizing at the intersections … it’s not enough to have a black lives matter movement separate from the economic justice movement, the Fight for $15 separate from the migrants movement and the environmental justice movement.”

Immigration activist Maria Echaveste added: “You also need to know that this battle is across countries,” noting that farm workers in the U.S. and in Mexico are oppressed by the same corporations.

Sierra Club Executive Director Michael Brune enlarged the circle further, pointing out that those worst hurt by corporate actions underlying climate change are those with the least resources. “One third of Americans live in places where it is unhealthy to breathe, every day,” he said.  “And the people who live in these places invariably are people being paid starvation wages. That’s why the Sierra Club is part of the Fight for $15.”

After the rally, over 1,000 protesters marched peacefully and energetically through downtown Berkeley, stopping at a downtown McDonald’s, and temporarily snarling traffic.

A new study by the UC Berkeley Labor Center, The High Public Cost of Low Wages, points out that low wages are costing U.S. taxpayers nearly $153 billion annually in public support for working families.

Speaking on radio station KPFA’s UpFront program April 15, lead author Ken Jacobs, the center’s chair, said higher wages would mean the funds “could be used in a more targeted manner.” He also noted that “some large companies, like McDonald’s and Wal-Mart, “are effectively using these programs as a subsidy.”

Jacobs said over half of fast food workers across the country are getting public assistance, as are nearly half of child care and home care workers, and even a quarter of part-time college faculty. Modest wage increases would cause a small rise in costs of goods and services, amounting to half of 1 percent overall, and less than 5 percent for restaurant meals, he said.

Specifically in California, Jacobs said, working families are receiving some $3.7 billion in public assistance, amounting to about half of total public assistance funds. 

Photo: Marilyn Bechtel/PW


Marilyn Bechtel
Marilyn Bechtel

Marilyn Bechtel writes from the San Francisco Bay Area. She joined the PW staff in 1986 and currently participates as a volunteer. Marilyn Bechtel escribe desde el Área de la Bahía de San Francisco. Se unió al personal de PW en 1986 y actualmente participa como voluntaria.