US sees largest protests calling for $15 minimum wage

Hundreds arrested after “Fight for $15” rallies take place in cities and at some airports across the United States.

Hundreds of people, including a number of officials, have been arrested across the United States for taking part in protests calling for a higher national minimum wage and more labour union rights, organisers say.

Demonstrations affiliated with “Fight for $15” – a US-based international movement seeking a minimum wage of $15-per hour for low-paid workers – took place on Tuesday in hundreds of US cities, including the commercial hubs of New York City, Chicago, and Los Angeles.

It was the largest Fight for $15 day of demonstration since the movement was launched in 2012. Protests were planned in 340 US cities and at 20 airports across the country.

Although more than half of all US states have higher minimum wages than the national level of $7.25 per hour, none have $15 – which senior government officials have introduced a bill in support of.

On Tuesday, workers from the aviation, restaurant, and healthcare industries, as well as university and college faculty, were among the thousands of protesters.

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The city of Chicago saw some of the largest demonstrations, which took place outside a McDonald’s restaurant, a major hospital, and the O’Hare international airport.

A member of the Fight for $15’s Chicago chapter, who spoke only on the condition of anonymity, told Al Jazeera 60 people were arrested after hundreds of protesters blocked a major intersection near McDonald’s.

At O’Hare airport, more than 2,000 workers – including security guards, baggage handlers, janitors and cabin cleaners – protested inside and outside of the terminal, but flights were not disrupted, he said.

In New York City, police cracked down on a large protest organised by 32BJ – the country’s biggest service industry union that backs the Fight for $15 movement – arresting dozens of demonstrators, including four elected officials who protested in solidarity.

Mark Levine, a city council member who was one of the detained officials, said in a statement made prior to his arrest: “Fast food employees and taxi drivers deserve far better wages and opportunities than they currently have.”

“Civil disobedience demonstrations such as this have a storied and successful past in the history of labour’s advancement in America,” he was quoted as saying in an email sent to Al Jazeera.

“That is why I am proud to stand today and risk arrest with hundreds of dedicated 32BJ members, because we have an obligation to set the highest standards for all workers. The Fight for 15 is a cause worth fighting for. It’s a cause worth getting arrested for,” Levine said.

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Jason Surbey, a spokesman for the US Department of Labor, told Al Jazeera that President Barack Obama’s administration has pushed for a higher federal minimum wage and encouraged states to raise workers’ salaries.

He also said the government “pushed for paid sick-leave policies for low-wage workers, and more than doubled the salary threshold under which workers are automatically eligible for overtime pay when they work more than 40 hours per week”.

“The department has also been engaged in a robust enforcement effort targeting wage violations, which are common in low-wage industries, to ensure workers receive the wages to which they are legally entitled,” Surbey added.

But many fear president-elect Donald Trump – who said during his election campaign that workers’ wages were already “too high” and putting US companies at a “competitive disadvantage” in the global trade arena – could reverse Obama’s wage initiatives. 

Source: Al Jazeera