Co-byline with Anthony Mendicino
Caption for cover photo: Ahmarée Osborne, son of fast food worker and protester Ashona Osborne, shows his support by chanting out songs at Market Square April 15. Photo by Liz Berie.
Market Square was buzzing on April 15 at noon and not just from the lunch crowd. A large crowd had started to grow in a pre-rally for the global Fight for 15 protests that took place in over 200 cities around the world.
The rally attracted people from SIEM 15, UPMS, United Steelworkers, fast food workers, Fight Back Pittsburgh, security guards, adjunct teachers, students and more.
For several protesters, this wasn’t their first rally.
“This is my third or fourth,” said Will Boas, a worker at the Northside McDonald’s. “And the turnout is better and bigger with every strike we have. The hope is it’ll get better as the day goes on.”
Boas was there in solidarity with his fellow workers.
“I’m here to stand with workers for better wages, better work conditions and a better level of respect,” Boas said.
Ashona Osborne, an employee of the Edgewood Arby’s, and Lolene Germany, from the KFC in Wilmsburgh, were there together on their fourth strike as well.
“Full-time workers should get full-time wages,” Osborne said. “We’re the ones doing the work… I want to be comfortable like my boss is comfortable.”
Germany wanted people to understand the hardship faced by those on minimum wage.
“They tell us to go to school and get a degree, but even when you’re in school, you’ve got bills to pay,” Germany said. “We want people to understand the struggle.”
She also asked corporations to realize the sacrifice minimum wage workers made for their benefit.
“We are how you’re able to do for your families. We just want to do the same [for ours],” she said.
From Market Square, the protesters made the short march to the North Side McDonald’s where the Rev. Ron Wanless, of the Pennsylvania Interfaith Impact Network, addressed the crowd in front of the small sign on the door reading “closed due to strike.”
“When McDonald’s refuses democracy in the workplace, when McDonald’s refuses 15 dollars an hour,” said Wanless. “When they do that, they slap Jesus in the face.”
He then led the crowd in a chant.
What do we want?
When do we want it?
If we don’t get it?
Shut it down!
Guillermo Perez, president of the Labor Council for Latin American Advancement, spoke to the crowd on Pittsburgh’s history of unions and how the steelworkers unionizing turned their work into “family sustaining, middle class jobs.”
He, too, led the crowd in a chant.
One day longer, one day stronger!
The still growing crowd then turned back to Market Square and began its march around the block. The protesters included several student activists, including Point Park student and Student Solidarity Organization (SSO) member Ren Finkel.
“[This protest] is feminist, anti-racist and intersectional,” Finkel said. “Women deserve to feel safe and be able to take care of their families. It won’t change unless we force change.”
Students from the University of Pittsburgh were also protesting that day.
“As students, it’s important to support our community,” said Hannah Weincrab, University of Pittsburgh student organizer. “This is an issue that affects us as well.”
But the protest was far from over. The next destination was Oakland and the goal:
“Tonight, we’re shutting down Oakland,” Osborne said.
A crowd of over 1,500 people gathered in front of Pitt’s Cathedral of Learning equipped with only homemade signs reading things like “$15 and a union,” chants of “15 now!” and power in numbers.
“As students, we feel this is important because when we graduate thousands of dollars in debt, we may need these jobs,” Samey Lee, the founder of the Student Solidarity Organization, said as the crowd began to march away from the Cathedral. She was one of many participants from Point Park.
Yelling over the chants of the crowd, Lee noted the personal connection she feels to the cause.
“I’ve lived in a working class family my whole life,” Lee said. “I have worked as a hostess and a waitress and doing that I was making $8 an hour. There were times I’ve had to miss classes because I don’t have money for the bus.”
Legal observers from the American Civil Liberties Union dressed head to toe in bright orange to separate themselves from the protesters stood next to police officers as the diverse crowd turned to march down Forbes Avenue.
We work, we sweat, put $15 on our checks!
Chants of “We work, we sweat, put $15 on our checks” and “I believe that we will win” rang throughout the blocked off streets.
I believe that we will win!
Even former students returned to join the protest, like University of Pittsburgh graduate student Natalia Holliday of Bloomfield.
“My dad is a lifelong union member in St. Louis, so I’ve had that connection my whole life,” Holliday said. “So when I saw the protest on Facebook, I knew I had to come.”
Holliday told the story of how her life was personally impacted by the strength of unions.
“My father worked for a coal company that was bought out by another company because it was going bankrupt, his union was a big reason why he was able to keep working,” she said.
The protest came to a stop in front of a closed McDonald’s on Forbes Avenue. A sign on the door of the establishment read: “Closed due to safety concerns.”
Protesters gathered in front of the fast food chain in a sit-in. Chants of “Whose streets? Our streets” were only quelled when the Rev. Rodney Lyde took to the microphone. “Until we see 15 and a union, we will be back,” said Lyde.
“We don’t want supersize fries,” Lyde said. “We want supersize wages.”
Lyde spoke up in support of UPMC workers as well.
“We know you’ve got the money,” Rev. Lyde said.
Chants of “UPMC, you are not a charity” broke out in the crowd.
UPMC, you are not a charity!
“I think this McDonalds is supposed to be open 24 hours a day. Does anyone know what happened?” Lyde asked the crowd. “I think we shut it down.”