Seattle fast-food workers and union activists chanted slogans, picketed and sought to cajole co-workers into walking off their restaurant jobs Thursday to demand a $15 minimum wage.
Joining a national protest that organizers said reached more than 50 cities, including New York, Chicago and Detroit, the Seattle protesters started with 6 a.m. pickets at local coffee shops and a rally at Westlake Center before fanning out across the city in vans.
Organizers said hundreds of people participated in Thursday’s rallies, which also demanded the right to organize unions without retaliation.
Shortly after 8 a.m., a group of about 20 demonstrators arrived at a Subway shop at Fifth Avenue and Seneca Street downtown. A handful went inside and unsuccessfully tried to get the woman behind the counter to join them.
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Outside the shop, one demonstrator spray-painted the word “Strike” on the sidewalk as the group chanted: “We want change. And we don’t mean pennies.”
Outside Columbia Center on Fourth Avenue, about 20 demonstrators were joined by two young men who said they’d walked off their jobs at Specialty’s Cafe & Bakery to participate in the strike.
“I feel like if no one stands up now, it will never happen,” said one of the men, a barista who identified himself simply as Tyler. He said he started work two weeks ago and is paid $10 an hour. Their walkout didn’t close the store.
Later, outside a Specialty’s Cafe and Bakery at Fifth Avenue and Union Street, an employee brought demonstrators a plate of sandwiches but said she could not join the group, which included her older brother.
“I feel for you guys, but I just can’t do it. I have too many bills to pay. And I love my job,” said barista Cambria McMahon, 19, who’s worked for Specialty’s for nine months.
Her older brother, Garrett, 22, was one of the two Specialty’s workers who said they’d walked off the job earlier at the Columbia Center location.
“It was definitely scary walking out,” he said. “But I feel if I don’t do something, countless people are going to be stuck in the same rut I am.”
At a noon protest at a Ballard Wendy’s, Ryan Parker, 21, said he has worked at the restaurant for a year at minimum wage and struggles to pay rent.
“We don’t deserve poverty wages. We work hard to make these people billions of dollars, yet we’re going home to hang out with the cockroaches and ants,” Parker said.
As the Ballard protest continued, cars and trucks driving past tooted their horns in support. Customers inside the Wendy’s munched on Pretzel Bacon Cheeseburgers and watched, some taking photos of the protest.
Brandon Meeke, a customer who exited the Wendy’s, said he thought fast-food workers deserve higher wages, but $15 an hour sounded a little high. “They’ve got an easy job,” said Meeke, who works in construction.
At $9.19 an hour, Washington state has the highest state minimum wage in the country. The wage is adjusted annually to keep up with inflation, as required by an initiative approved by voters in 1998. The federal minimum wage is $7.25 an hour.
The Washington Restaurant Association has opposed a higher minimum wage, and has tried to block a $15 minimum wage initiative in SeaTac. Anthony Anton, the association’s president, said restaurants operate on small margins and labor costs are typically 36 percent of a restaurant’s expenses.
“Something’s got to break. It just doesn’t work,” Anton said of a $15 minimum wage, adding that fast-food jobs have traditionally been seen as starter jobs.
Around 4 p.m., a crowd gathered at Plymouth Pillars Park at Pike Street and Boren Avenue, where several speakers, including Mayor Mike McGinn and his opponent in the mayoral race, state Sen. Ed Murray, gave speeches and stood in solidarity with the protesting workers in the rain.
Austin Scheen, 22, hadn’t walked out of his job at Papa John’s in Tacoma — he simply hadn’t shown up at all. But Scheen, who makes $10.65 as a shift manager, said he’d given his boss one of the fliers being handed out at the rally and told him he’d be striking.
After the speeches were finished, the group headed up Pike Street, blocking the eastbound lane and chanting slogans like “Super-size my salary now!” They stopped at several fast-food restaurants to ask employees to join them on their march to Broadway. Few, if any, did.
Benjamin Roberts, a barista at Victrola Coffee Roasters, told protesters that he appreciated the cause, but wouldn’t leave the shop unattended.
“I would do it for them, but I would need advance notice,” he said.
Chipotle got less of a delegation than a mob, as wet protesters piled in from the rain, shouting: “You don’t need the boss; the boss needs you!” Employees there also declined to join the group.
Gov. Jay Inslee signaled support for the fast-food workers, sending a tweet Thursday saying their strike brought “needed focus to hard working people struggling to share in Washington’s prosperity.” But an Inslee spokeswoman said the governor has no plans to push for a $15-an-hour minimum wage.
Thursday’s protests followed earlier actions by fast-food workers organized by union activists, including a May 30 strike that spread across the city and shut down some fast-food restaurants.
On Aug. 1, eight protesters were arrested at a fast-food-worker rally near a downtown McDonald’s after they blocked traffic and refused police orders to disperse.
Seattle Times staff reporter Colin Campbell contributed to this report.
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