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Hundreds protest wage theft, environmental pollution

on October 2, 2015

“Hold the burgers! Hold the fries! Make my wages supersized!” chanted the crowd of about a hundred members of labor and environmental groups as they protested in a North Oakland McDonald’s. Several carried bullhorns and most wore the Service Employees International Union’s signature purple ponchos to shield themselves from the rain.

The crowd filled the McDonald’s to the brim before spilling back out into the parking lot. “We send a loud message to McDonald’s and we send a loud message to California that we’re not going to tolerate wage theft any longer,” said David Huerta, president of United Service Workers West, through the bullhorn.

The crowd had convened Wednesday morning at Oakland’s Beebe Memorial Cathedral to rally and hold a town hall meeting that united both economic and environmental issues. They were there to urge Governor Jerry Brown to sign SB 588, a bill allowing the state labor commissioner to place a lien on employers’ property to collect unpaid wages; and SB 350, a climate change measure focused on increasing electricity generation from renewable resources and increasing energy efficiency in buildings. The governor has until October 11 to sign or veto both bills.

Speakers at the rally included hedge fund manager-turned-environmentalist and philanthropist Tom Steyer and State Senator Mark Leno (D-San Francisco), who has been active in lobbying to raise the minimum wage. “When we think about these two bills, I can’t think of two that sound less connected than wage theft and climate change,” Steyer said. “But they are really about the same thing. They’re about justice for Californians and a restoration of the California dream.”

Petra Reynaga, a fast-food worker activist with the East Bay Organizing Project, came before the crowd to cheers of “Si, se puede!” Through a translator, she recounted her experience. “I was looking at my paychecks: I was getting paid for 80 hours when I had worked 100. My manager said, ‘Oh, that happens to me too,’” said Reynaga.

After she spoke up, Reynaga alleged, her bosses at Burger King didn’t compensate her or her fellow employees for their unpaid hours. “I’m telling you, I’m not the only person in this situation. There are lots of people in the same situation as I find myself,” said Reynaga. “This is reality for us—this is not a circus. It’s our reality that we live with and I’m here and I wish that this will never happen to anybody ever again.”

Though the majority of rally attendees appeared to be from labor groups, support for the climate change bill, SB 350, remained in the forefront.

Labor groups’ focus on environmental issues is not new, said Huerta. “We’ve always felt our members have been victims of climate change and pollution, toxic communities. What is new is combining saving the environment and a living wage,” he said.

“We see the connection between the economic inequality and the environmental inequality. We see the most pollution in communities of color,” said Gary Jimenez, an officer of SEIU Local 1021. “But we have to organize together, stand up together because then our voices will be heard. So that’s what we’re doing.”

Steyer also hit on the theme of cooperation. “The problems are linked, but the solution is linked too, and the solution is in this room,” he said. “We have to be together and we have to be organized. And if we’re those things, we will win wage theft and we will win climate change and we will win every other progressive issue that we stand together on.”


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Photo by Basil D Soufi
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