by Gus Bova - Texas Obersver

Thousands of workers went on strike Tuesday in 340 cities across the country as part of the Fight for $15 movement, a four-year-old activist campaign that fights for a $15 minimum wage and collective bargaining for low-wage workers and aims to win union recognition at McDonald’s restaurants. In Texas, more than 200 fast-food workers and supporters rallied at 6 a.m. in Austin and Houston before coming together for a joint meeting at Houston George Bush Intercontinental Airport. Seven protesters were arrested for blocking a highway access road in Houston.

More than 2.6 million Americans and 287,000 Texans are paid at or below the federal minimum wage of $7.25 per hour, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics

The national movement has led to a $15 minimum wage in New York state, California, Seattle and Washington, D.C., along with a slew of other local and employer-specific wage raises. In Texas, the victories have been more modest: The movement recently won campaigns to get air conditioning at an Austin Popeyes and a San Marcos Wendy’s.

“These [Fight for $15] strikes, especially in the South, have totally changed the conversation,” said Austin City Council member Greg Casar outside of an East Austin McDonald’s on Tuesday morning, “not only around wages, but also humanizing low-wage workers.”

Casar added that Texas cities have been able to improve pay rates for their own employees and companies they contract with, including wages of $13.03 per hour in Austin and $13.75 in San Antonio. 

Casar was among around 60 workers and supporters, including City Council member Delia Garza, who kicked off the day outside a strip of fast food restaurants along Riverside Drive.

Kendrick Cox, a father of two and Sonic carhop earning $5 per hour plus tips, told the Observer that at a young age he turned to selling drugs to help make ends meet. Then, when that got him into legal trouble, it became even harder to find a decent job. “These billionaires don’t want to shell out a few extra dollars so that people can live,” he said. “And they wonder why people hustle.”

Mayeane Simms, a Whataburger worker earning $9 per hour, brought one of her three children to the strike. “It’s hard because my kids never get everything they need,” she said. “I have to choose between diapers and clothes.”

Both Cox and Simms were striking for the first time, but neither said they feared reprisals from their employers. As Austin organizer Brad Crowder explained, the workers were engaging in what is called “protected concerted activity” as defined by the National Labor Relations Act. Crowder explained that this protection applies even if workers do not belong to an employer-recognized union.

After a two-hour demonstration, about 30 workers and supporters boarded a bus from Austin to Houston, where activists were waiting to meet them.

There, around 200 people gathered in the airport hotel for a panel featuring speakers from the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) and other worker-activists.

Isaias Sapon, a McDonald’s employee and member of the Fight for $15 National Organizing Committee, elicited cheers from the crowd when he announced, “November 8 is past, but the Fight for $15 is just getting started.” He said that next steps would include educating more workers about their rights and organizing more strikes to pressure McDonald’s into recognizing the committee as a union.

“It’s true that it’s difficult to organize in Texas,” he said“So we may not be growing fast, but I assure you, we are growing.” The crowd then filed out with Houston airport workers affiliated with the Machinists’ union and demonstrated along JFK Boulevard.

Texas legislators have prefiled two minimum wage bills for the upcoming session, one at $10.10 per hour and the other at $15. Senator Jose Menendez, author of the $10.10 bill, told the Observer he supports the $15 bill filed by state Representative Roberto Alonzo, but predicts that the Legislature will not find that wage floor “palatable.”

Though a $10.10 minimum wage proposal failed 50-92 in the Texas House in 2015, Menendez said he’s optimistic this year. “If my colleagues on the other side of the aisle practice what they preach, letting the free market work and cutting down on welfare,” he said, “then this bill will pass.”

Gus Bova, a Kansas-Texas transplant and inveterate protest-attender, is an editorial intern at the Observer. He can be contacted at bova@texasobserver.org.