Bay Area workers demonstrate for higher minimum wage

Jihoon Park/Staff

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Workers and union members marched throughout Berkeley in support of a national workers’ movement Wednesday afternoon, disrupting traffic as they demonstrated for a $15 minimum wage and the right to unionize.

A crowd of as many as 350 to 400 people congregated for a Fight for 15 rally shortly before 3 p.m. at the intersection of Bancroft Way and Telegraph Avenue. Protests also took place in Los Angeles, New York and other cities.

Protesters gathered from around the Bay Area and the state. Groups such as Justice for Janitors and United Farm Workers of America joined many other workers’ organizations, chanting, “Hey hey, ho ho, poverty wages have got to go!” and “Get up, get down, Berkeley is a union town!”

“This is the biggest labor protest, nationally, I’ve seen,” said Pete Castelli, executive director of SEIU Local 1021, a labor union representing service employees.

One protester, Blanca Alvarez, said she has worked at a Taco Bell in Oakland for 12 years. She said she witnessed more than 12 robberies at the restaurant during her time there.

“The last two, I’ve been injured, because (they beat) us up with a gun,” Alvarez said. “That’s why I’m fighting.”

Veronica Gonzalez, a colleague from the same Taco Bell, was reassigned to a franchise in San Leandro after the robberies.

Alvarez said that although she and her fellow workers asked for a security guard more than a year ago, her managers were unresponsive to the request.

Many protesters said while it represents a significant increase, $15 per hour would still not match the living wage in much of the United States and particularly in the Bay Area.

“All of our members make $12.50 (an hour),” said Veronica Stead-Mendez, an organizer with SEIU Local 6434, which represents long-term care workers. “That’s not a living wage. We can’t survive on that.”

In October, the city of Berkeley officially instated a $10-per-hour minimum wage. A minimum wage of $11 per hour will go into effect Oct. 1, followed by a $12.53 minimum wage to begin Oct. 1, 2016.

Workers chose a location near campus to engage students with their cause, according to Alvarez.

“My parents have held a lot of low-wage jobs, and just looking at how expensive things are in the (East Bay), I know you can’t sustain yourself,” said Ulises Serrano, a campus senior.

Seraphina Cobeen, a waitress and Berkeley resident, manned a booth at the event as part of 15 Now, an organization in support of the movement.

Cobeen previously worked at Target, where she said she was required to watch an anti-union video.

“I’m here today because I don’t think the minimum wage is fair,” Cobeen said. “Our country has become a lot less of a union country in recent years, and we need to change that.”

Contact Anna Sturla at [email protected].