One day after the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, a civil rights action that also focused on labor issues, fast-food workers in Madison joined a nationwide fight to push their wages to $15-an-hour. A daylong series of rallies started before the sun came up Thursday, when more than 50 activists and fast-food workers gathered in front of the Dunkin' Donuts on South Park Street.
Workers walked out of their jobs in some 50 cities across the country. Previous protests were limited to larger cities, including Milwaukee.
"We're an active state and a very active city, and people pay attention when we stand up," says Meghan Ford, a 22-year-old Dunkin' Donuts employee.
Wisconsin's minimum wage is $7.25. Many of the fast-food workers striking make more than that an hour, but still find their pay to be too low to support themselves.
Ford, who earns $8.25 an hour, says she has three other jobs to help make ends meet.
Thursday's protests in Madison and Milwaukee were organized by Wisconsin Jobs Now, a statewide pro-labor organization which compiled a series of photos and reports from participating cities in the state and around the nation. Service Employees International Union, an international labor union, coordinated the protests nationally.
Many of the voices chanting "Get up, get down, Madison's a union town!" belonged to seasoned activists, including Zee Lemke. Thursday was the first time Lemke went on strike, but she has been arrested three times at the Solidarity Sing Along.
"This is a different action, but if you believe in solidarity, you should be here," says Lemke, a Starbucks barista and member of the Industrial Workers of the World, an international union.
Lemke says she is different from many of her co-workers in that she comes from an upper-middle class background. She also has a graduate degree in sociology from UW-Madison.
"Unless lightning comes from the blue, I don't have to worry about [financial hardship]. But the people I know do, and it ruins their lives," she says.
Brenda Gomez, a first time protestor and a McDonald's employee for 11 years, remembers reading about the first round of walkouts, and wanted to participate this time around.
"I live paycheck to paycheck, and go to food banks for my food, because I don't make enough money," she says, adding that she also relies on food stamps," she says. "We deserve more money and a union ... there would probably be more fairness in the workplace, equal hours for everybody."
Lemke says unionized Starbucks employees have experienced some "small victories." In one instance, workers at the Mall of America were able to buy fans for their overheated workplace with union help after their manager refused their requests.
Beyond that, a unionized workplace might bring more pride to the unglamorous work and long days of fast-food employees.
"When I'm there, I'm not working for [Starbucks CEO] Howard Schultz, to make him money," says Lemke. "I'm working to empower workers and myself."
"It's helped me build connections with fellow workers, and given me a philosophy that encourages actual respect for the people who do the work."
The protests culminated Thursday with a late afternoon rally on Library Mall with appearances by Mayor Paul Soglin and U.S. Rep. Mark Pocan, along with religious leaders.
Janet Veum, spokesperson for US Uncut, a political action group that helped organize the protests, says she's sure that the striking workers today had the March on Washington on their minds. "That was a march for jobs and freedom, which resonates with workers today," she says.
UW-Madison history professor William P. Jones, who has written an entire book on the march (The March on Washington: Jobs, Freedom and the Forgotten History of Civil Rights), agrees: "The issue of employment and decent wages and working conditions was always at the forefront of the movement. Of all the things people have done this week to commemorate the 50th anniversary, this [labor action] is actually the most appropriate way to do it."
One of the demands of the marchers 50 years ago was a minimum wage of $2.00 to give workers a higher standard of living. Adjusted for inflation, that hourly rate today would be $15.27, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.