$15 minimum wage protesters crash Democratic debate in Wisconsin

·Political correspondent
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Hourly workers, on strike and organized by the Fight for $15, crash the media room at the Democratic presidential debate in Milwaukee. (Photo: Meredith Shiner, Yahoo News)

MILWAUKEE — Dozens of demonstrators advocating for a $15 minimum wage made their way through the glass doors of the Union Ballroom here on the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee’s campus and into a large makeshift media workspace set up for Tuesday night’s Democratic debate, taking their cause to the heart of the nation’s political reporting corps.

The protest — organized by the Fight for $15, a national union rights group — was comprised largely of young, black fast food workers from Wisconsin, where 46 percent of workers make less than $15 hourly, according to the organization. It began inside the student union just an hour and half before a Democratic presidential primary debate was set to go live nationally, and after protests had built up outside the building, where the temperatures hovered around 15 degrees.

The relative quiet of the press room, which had been filled with the sound of clicking computer keys and reporters eating their dinners, was broken by the protesters carrying picket signs calling for a $15 minimum wage and chanting, “You want our vote; come get our vote!” and “We work! We sweat! Put $15 on our check.”

After a few minutes, the peaceful protesters were escorted to the lower level of the Union, where they continued to grow in number and volume, as University of Wisconsin- Milwaukee students and reporters looked on. It was a scene vaguely reminiscent of the labor protests that occurred in the rotunda of the Capitol in Madison, Wis., almost exactly five years ago, when Republican Gov. Scott Walker vowed, and ultimately succeeded, to bust unions in the state that invented them.

Kendall Fells, national organizer and director of the Fight for 15, told Yahoo News that many of the young food-industry workers on strike and at the debate are planning to vote for the first time, although they have yet to decide on a candidate and are focused on a single issue set: fair pay and the right to organize.

“Fast food workers have been going on strike in this country since Nov. 29, 2012. Today over 1,000 workers — fast food workers, home care workers are out here, child care workers, adjunct professors — what they’re saying is they want $15 an hour and a union,” Fells said. “They don’t care if you’re a Democrat, you’re Republican, they don’t care if you’re running for dogcatcher or running for president, they want $15 and they want a union. … A lot of these workers have never voted before but are going to be voting in this election, and they’re going to make sure their voices are heard.

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Protesters begin to congregate in the atrium of U.W.-Milwaukee’s student union an hour before the Democratic debate was scheduled to begin. (Photo: Meredith Shiner, Yahoo News)

Ayesha Lee, a 19-year-old Milwaukee resident who works at a McDonalds two miles from the debate, took the microphone to address the energized crowd, telling them that it was time that politicians took worker rights issues seriously and delivered on higher wages, instead of merely saying that they understood the plight of low-paid workers.

After her speech and over the beat of drums and chants from her fellow demonstrators, she told Yahoo News she is just trying to make enough money to pay for college.

“I wanted my voice to be heard,” Lee said, who added that some of the U.W.-Milwaukee students joined her and fellow workers in their demonstration. “I want to school. I want to go to college. I’m trying to go to [Milwaukee Area Technical College].”

Lee said she has not decided for whom she will vote in her first opportunity to participate in a presidential election, but that she would be interested to hear what the candidates had to say, just yards away on the debate stage.

“They need to earn my vote. Right now, they’re not earning my vote because they’re not speaking to us — they need to fight for $15,” she said.

Democratic candidate Bernie Sanders does support a $15 federal minimum wage and has participated in protests at the United States Capitol in Washington with food services employees who work there. When asked about whether that was enough to support him, Lee said that she still needed to hear more.

“That’s only one sound, one voice. We need more than just him,” she said.

Hillary Clinton supports an increase of the minimum wage to $12 and has said that $15 would be a near-impossible goal given the current composition of Congress, which is run by Republicans.

For the demonstrators in Wisconsin on Tuesday night, however, the legislative logistics of increasing their pay seemed to be of less consequence.

“These workers are working for companies and work in situations where they have no say-so. A lot of these fast food workers are being burnt on the job, anywhere from minor burns to third-degree burns, being told to put butter on it,” Fells, the organizer, said. “What this is about is about workers pulling themselves out of poverty. If you work in this country 40 hours a week, you should be able to have a roof over your head, clothes on your back and food in your stomach.”

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