by Paul Ortiz, Alachua County Labor Coalition
On Thursday, April 15, the Alachua County Labor Coalition brought two vanloads of activists from Gainesville to join a rally in support of the Fight for $15 campaign at the world’s largest McDonald’s on International Drive in Orlando.
According to the Orlando Sentinel, Central Florida boasts “the lowest median wag of any major metropolitan area in the country,” so this demonstration was desperately needed by area workers who face a skyrocketing cost of living and stagnant wages.
Our vans left Gainesville at 2 pm, and we gathered with about 200 workers in a parking lot rally point on International Drive about one mile away from the McDonalds to get organized for the protest. Many of the fast food workers had been picketing since 6 am that morning and had just arrived from a protest in the Tampa area. They were excited to meet us and said, “Wow, you came all the way from Gainesville to join us? Thank you!”
We quickly formed a community of struggle even though we hailed from several different cities and regions of Florida. It was exciting to be part of a statewide day of action and a national movement.
As more workers gathered, Fight for $15 organizers passed out picket signs with messages such as: “Las Vidas Negras Importan/Lucha Por $15/Justicia Para Immigrantes,” which in English means: “Black Lives Matter/Fight for $15/Justice for Immigrants.”
We commenced with a spirited march down International Drive that stopped traffic as usual on one of the world’s busiest thoroughfares. There were folks wearing paper machete costumes of Disney characters; a pro-worker Ronald McDonald easily stole the show.
The most popular chant of the day was: “Fight for $15 – and a Union!” Marchers and our chants – time and time again – connected union rights, the Black Lives Matter movement, and the struggle for immigration rights.
The response from onlookers was generally positive. It seemed like older folks wanted to lecture us about the dignity of working for low wages while younger motorists frequently gave “thumbs up” signs and shouted in support of our action. When a man in a monster truck slowed down and yelled: “Get a job!” a hundred voices responded nearly in unison: “We’ve got a job, brother – join us!” The man sped off.
When we arrived at the McDonald’s, there were about a dozen squad cars, plain clothes cops and deputy sheriffs waiting for us. Possibly because we enjoyed a tremendous amount of positive support in the area, the police were relatively mellow and did not try to push us around too much.
A number of workers spoke at the rally in front of the store and several politicians running for local office made appearances as well.
Fast-food workers confronted stereotypes about their labor and reminded the media that the service sector is the fastest growing sector of the American economy. Thus, what happens to workers in this sector impacts the entire society.
As the rally concluded, we turned toward that store and shouted, “We’ll be back!” and made our way back down International Drive, stopping to talk with both supporters and detractors, when possible.
Afterward, we gathered at the rally point and traded stories about our experiences in the growing Fight for $15 movement.
An overwhelming consensus among activists from across Florida was that we are beginning to have a big impact on politics due to our persistence. Workers from south Florida were excited to hear about Alachua County’s new living wage ordinance and the solidarity work that the ACLC is doing in support of Verizon strikers.
Thanks to this burgeoning economic justice movement, the phrase “$15 – and a Union!” is becoming a popular saying across the country. Join us at the Alachua County Labor Coalition to become part of this movement.