LTE: Bread, Roses, and Burgers: Fighting for 15 in Des Moines
by Tom Brantseg
At 5:15 am on Monday morning, five sleepy socialists piled into a car in Ames and headed off for some direct action in support of Fight For 15. We arrived slightly late on the scene of the first action (a Burger King near the capital), thanks to a bit of early morning brain fog. When we arrived, we just stepped into the chanting, marching mass of people. A lot of different groups were represented: the Heart of Iowa, Central Iowa, and Iowa City chapters of the Democratic Socialists of America, SEIU local 199, Faculty Forward, Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement, and many others. Democratic gubernatorial candidates Jon Neiderbach and Cathy Glasson were also on the scene, together with quite a few media outlets. For me, this was the first picket line I had ever been on, and the atmosphere was electric despite the early morning gloom – songs, chants, drums, cheering, signs, flags, banners. Most of the Burger King workers, some still in uniform, had already walked off the job by the time we stopped to listen to a few speakers and a few songs.
The Rev. Alejandro Alfaro Santiz of Trinity United Methodist acted as the master of ceremonies, speaking alternately in English and Spanish. Several striking fast food workers told their stories of trying to make ends meet and trying to feed their families despite woefully inadequate wages; Rev. Alfaro Santiz introduced each speaker. I was deeply moved by their boldness and bravery. I was risking nothing except some lost sleep to be here and stand with them, while they ran a very real risk, thanks to Iowa’s monstrous right-to-work legislation, of losing their livelihoods. It was a stark reminder of what is at stake in this fight and how much there still is for all of us to do to. But there was also a beautiful reminder of the power of worker solidarity – at one point, the speakers were interrupted by deafening cheers as the last BK worker walked off the job and was greeted by our group with handshakes and hugs as she took up a position holding a large Fight for 15 banner. No matter what the bosses said, the restaurant workers knew they were the ones that made the place actually run.
Ms. Glasson wrapped things up with a typically fiery speech, and we walked over to the parking lot to get ready for our next action, chanting, waving signs, and getting a few supportive honks from passing cars. After a bit of waiting while we found the person (I don’t recall the name) who had the location of our next action, we dispersed into cars and buses to head over to Mercy Hospital in support of SEIU’s action.
When we got there, we found everyone had decided – since there was a bit of free time in the schedule – to go picket at the nearby McDonald’s. This didn’t go quite as smoothly, since there were already police and a few unfriendly bystanders there. After a short while, we moved over to a nearby parking lot to avoid any potential confrontations and then lined up along the road. Most of the reaction we got from passing drivers and pedestrians was supportive (honks, waves, thumbs-up), save for one or two people yelling unintelligibly at us and one driver who slowed down to give us a middle finger as he passed. As we stood by the road we were also joined by an additional contingent of SEIU members before we walked a few blocks over to Mercy Hospital.
We assembled in a parking lot across the street from the hospital to listen to some additional songs and speeches, both from striking nurses who talked about inadequate pay and staffing and dangerously long shifts (one nurse came straight to the demonstration from a twelve-hour shift), and from Democratic candidates and elected officials. Pete D’Alessandro, running for the IA-03 House seat, gave an excellent speech in which he said “The discussion starts at $15/hour” – words I think every Democratic candidate needs to adopt – and was followed by Johnson county supervisor Mike Carberry and another speech from Ms. Glasson. Glasson gave a longer speech than at the Burger King action, but kept the energy as high, and she was unfazed by a bit of recurring trouble with the microphone, joking that she didn’t need it anyway because she had a loud enough voice.
After that, we dispersed and headed home at about 10 am. Despite the lack of sleep and spending hours standing, chanting, and marching, I wasn’t tired. I was elated. It had been a beautiful morning. This is what democracy looks like, and it’s only the first step in us winning a fair, livable wage for our fellow workers. So you can be sure I’ll be there at the next step, no matter when or where it is, because the workers sure as hell will be.