VILLA PARK, Ill. – Comparing their campaign to the civil rights movement, fast food workers from across the country voted Saturday to escalate their efforts for $15-an-hour pay and union membership by using nonviolent civil disobedience.
More than 1,300 workers gathered in a convention in center in suburban Chicago to discuss the future of a campaign that has spread to dozens of cities in less than two years. Wearing T-shirts that said "Fight for $15" and "We Are Worth More," the workers cheered loudly and said they would win if they stuck together.
"People are just fed up," said Cindy Enriquez, 20, of Phoenix.
The $8.25 an hour she makes working for McDonald's is not enough to go to college and become a police officer and barely enough to pay her rent, Enriquez said.
While the vote didn't list any specific acts of civil disobedience, Enriquez said some workers suggested sit-ins and perhaps blocking businesses. She said they need to keep pressure on owners even if it means sitting in front of restaurants "to make sure they do not sell anything."
"We're going to keep on going," Enriquez said.
The Service Employees International Union has been providing financial and organizational support to the fast-food protests. They began in late 2012 in New York City and have included daylong strikes and a loud but peaceful demonstration outside this year's McDonald's Corp. shareholder meeting, where more than 130 protesters were arrested after stepping onto company property.
Saturday's convention in Villa Park, Illinois, included sessions on civil disobedience and leadership training. Kendall Fells, an organizing director for the campaign and a representative of SEIU, said when and what actions happen next will be up to workers in each city.
The Rev. William Barber II, head of the North Carolina NAACP, said the movement is young but as important as when civil disobedience efforts began during the early years of the civil rights movement.
"People should not work and be willing to work and then be denied living wages and be denied health care because of greed," Barber said.
"This movement is saying that America is less than she promises to be, morally and constitutionally, by denying living wages," Barber said. "If you raise wages for workers, you buoy the whole economy."
The campaign comes as President Barack Obama and many other Democrats across the country have attempted to make a campaign issue out of their call to increase the federal and state minimum wages.
The current federal minimum wage is $7.25 an hour, translating to about $15,000 a year for someone working 40 hours a week, though many fast-food workers get far fewer hours. Obama and others have called for increasing it to $10.10.
Fast food workers say even that's not enough because most people working in the industry now are adults with children, rather than teenagers earning pocket money. The restaurant industry has argued that a $15 hourly wage could lead to business closings and job cuts, though the Seattle City Council recently voted to raise the city's minimum wage to $15 an hour, phased in over several years.
The National Restaurant Association said last week that increasing wages to $15 will not solve income inequality and that the campaign was an attempt by unions to boost dwindling membership. Scott DeFife, the association's executive vice president of policy and government affairs, said protesters were "demonizing" an industry that employs workers of all ages, backgrounds and skill levels, when the focus should be on policies that increase education and job training.
But many people now are staying with fast-food restaurants for years, because they're often the only ones available, workers said.
Latoya Caldwell, a mother of four from Kansas City, Missouri, who earns $7.50 an hour at a Wendy's restaurant, said she works six days a week to get 40 hours and earn a $435 paycheck.
"I might pay the mortgage, but then not be able to pay the light bill or pay the gas bill. Then I have to wait until the next check and not able to buy shoes or not able to buy diapers," Caldwell said. "I just want to make sure we are able to live decent."
Barber said workers such as Caldwell, who's participated in three strikes, are putting a face on the campaign for better wages.
"This movement is intensifying and it is going to shake the moral consciousness of this country," he said.