DES MOINES, IOWA—Braving the bitter Iowa cold as the sun went down, several hundred protesters rallied outside Thursday night’s GOP debate in downtown Des Moines. They came with a simple message: “Come get our vote.”
The protest action came after fast-food workers across Des Moines went on strike early Thursday morning, demanding a $15 minimum wage and the right to a union—the rallying cry that has come to characterize the Fight for 15 movement as it has spread from New York City to Los Angeles. It was the first Fight for 15 action in Iowa.
Fellow fast-food and other low-wage workers and advocates from Midwestern cities like Kansas City, Chicago, and Milwaukee joined the striking workers as they gathered near the GOP debate.
“[The Iowa strikers] were inspired by us in Kansas City, and we were inspired by New York City,” Terrence Wise told me. He makes $8 an hour at both McDonald’s and Burger King in Kansas City and has become a prominent figure in the fast-food worker movement, most notably visiting the White House for a summit on worker voice.
“To be here in Des Moines right now is a big deal. We’ve never gone after politicians; so far it’s only been corporations,” he continued. “It’s opening up a new battle.”
And while chants of “You want our vote? Come get our vote” resonated strongly among the crowd, the call for worker rights likely failed to permeate through the building walls and into the GOP debate, where talk of minimum wages (when there is any) is usually coupled with opposition to raising—or abolishing altogether—the federal standard.
But worker action coinciding with primary debates has become a new strategy for Fight for 15 leaders as the 2016 presidential election heats up. The protesters who gathered outside the GOP debate in Milwaukee in November heard moderator Neil Cavuto start off the debate with a mention of the surging momentum for higher minimum wages across the country. By contrast, there was no mention of the minimum wage by either moderators or candidates in Thursday night’s Des Moines debate.
On the Democratic side, candidates have been much more supportive of the Fight for 15 movement. At the January debate in Charleston, South Carolina, hundreds of fast-food workers who had walked off their jobs rallied outside the debate, which prompted Bernie Sanders to briefly join the protest and offer his support.
For her part, Hillary Clinton called into a national convention of fast-food workers to say that she “wants to be your champion.” She’s also earned the endorsement of the Service Employees International Union (the benefactor and organizer of the Fight for 15), even though she’s called for a less ambitious national minimum wage of $12. Both Sanders and Martin O’Malley support a $15 federal minimum wage.
The Des Moines demonstrators were joined by members of the National Nurses United union, who showed up to pitch workers on Sanders’ support for the Fight for 15. The union is the largest representative of nurses in the country and was the first union (of very few) to endorse Sanders’s candidacy. The NNU has launched a super PAC to promote the Vermont senator.
“Bernie has been a proponent of the Fight for 15 for some time,”
Jean Ross, NNU co-president, told me at the rally. “Hillary is not. Hillary apparently is big into tweaking things, and we need a revolution, we’ve got to turn things up from the bottom.”
In 2016, architects of the Fight for 15 are pivoting from pressuring high-profile companies like McDonald’s to high-profile presidential candidates, with hopes of convincing White House wannabes that the low-wage-worker voting bloc is primed to become a political force.
At least some research seems to bear out that hope. A recent poll from the National Employment Law Project found that 63 percent of worker making less than $15 an hour would be more likely to vote in the 2016 presidential election if there was a candidate who supported a $15 minimum wage and union rights.
Across the country, roughly 42 percent of workers make less than $15 an hour. That’s even higher in Iowa: 48 percent—nearly three-quarters of a million workers—make less than $15.
The Fight for $15 has convinced low-wage workers like Wiley King, who makes $8 an hour at a Des Moines Wendy’s, to participate in the Iowa caucus for the first time. “I never thought I would go on strike,” King said at the rally, “but I’ve seen what other fast-food workers have won by speaking out, and I know that we can win here in Iowa too.”
The question that is unclear right now is whether these low-wage workers who are caucusing for the first time will cast their vote for SEIU’s pick—Hillary Clinton—and her tendency to head toward the middle of the road or whether they will be attracted to the purported purity of Sanders’ across-the-board support for a $15 minimum.
But the degree to which low-wage workers can become a cohesive political influence in the Iowa caucus and subsequent contests—especially in Southern states—will likely be a factor in determining where the Fight for 15 goes from here.