Rashida Tlaib arrested at pro-labor rally

Breana Noble
The Detroit News

Detroit — Rashida Tlaib, the near-certain replacement for John Conyers in the U.S. House of Representatives, was arrested with 17 others Tuesday during a pro-labor rally in Detroit.

Hundreds gathered at Warren and Woodward avenues and marched down Woodward to a McDonald's as part of a national walkout of workers from McDonald's, Burger King, Wendy's and other chains organized by the Fight for $15, which advocates for a $15 per hour minimum wage.

Police took Tlaib and the others into custody after they refused to move from their seats at a table the group set up in the middle of Woodward. Fourteen females and four males — including Abdul El-Sayed, the former Democratic candidate for governor — were taken in handcuffs to the Detroit Detention Center for processing and release. Detroit Police Deputy Chief Elvin Barren said they would be issued citations for disorderly conduct misdemeanors and receive court dates.

"These corporations are making billions off of our blood and sweat," Tlaib, the Democratic candidate for U.S. Representative, said to protesters wearing "Fight for $15" T-shirts and carrying signs encouraging people to vote Nov. 6 for higher pay, health care and "good union jobs." "That's the most American thing you can do today: To push back, because they are pushing our children into poverty, because we deserve better."

Police escorted the estimated 400 protesters down Woodward to the McDonald's following reports there would be as many as 1,000 people. 

Earlier in the day at a Fight for $15 rally in Flint, a pickup truck ran into a group of participants. Eight were hospitalized. Police Chief Tim Johnson said he didn't believe the crash was intentional.

"We were patient," Barren said of the Detroit protesters after the arrests. "That sets us apart from other departments, but that patience has a cap, and they did not leave."

The Rev. W. J. Rideout III, president of Defenders of Truth and Justice, organized the protest.

"It was an onslaught of the devil," Rideout said of the arrests. "We didn't do anything to harm. The police know all of my protests are peaceful."

Mary Kay Henry, international president of the Service Employees International Union, said the union would provide legal assistance to those who were taken into custody.

“We saw the fearlessness and courage of workers," Henry said, "standing for what they think is right and to create good jobs.”

In the past, fast-food workers largely have failed to garner majorities to join unions. So-called "right-to-work" state legislation that prohibits unions from requiring non-union employees to pay representation fees has made it more difficult for workers to organize. Additionally, since many fast-food jobs are seen as temporary positions, it leaves many unwilling to pay dues, knowing they might not be around by the time a union forms and negotiates employment benefits.

"If they try to form a union," Rideout said, "they're fired."

Lachelle Slaughter, 24, of Detroit said she has seen that happen. She is a crew leader and cashier at a McDonald's at Detroit Metropolitan Airport. Slaughter said she wants a union to negotiate for higher pay and health care.

“I already have two kids,” she said. “I have to provide for them, my family. Fifteen dollars per hour — that'd be a lot for myself.”

In a statement, a McDonald's spokesman said the company is allocating $150 million over five years to tuition assistance for restaurant employees, tripling its support of the program.

“Our commitment to the communities we serve includes providing opportunities for restaurant employees to succeed at McDonald’s and beyond with world-class training and education programs to help them build the skills needed for today’s workforce," the spokesman said. "These enhancements underscore McDonald’s and its independent franchisees’ commitment to providing jobs that fit around the lives of restaurant employees so they may pursue their education and career ambitions.”

Prior to being placed into custody, El-Sayed said corporations need to do more for their workers.

“Bill Schuette, the Republicans are saying people should work, get jobs,” El-Sayed told The Detroit News. “They are working, but they can't get what they need to live a dignified life.”

Jamall Mario Clark, 49, of Detroit said he was scheduled to work at Popeyes today, but came to the protest because he makes just over $9 per hour after working at the chain restaurant for two years.

“I’m just getting by,” he said. “I'm always broke, and I've got responsibilities.”

Fight for $15 said it was advocating to unionize not just fast-food workers but employees at Detroit Metropolitan Airport, in the downtown Arena District, in local hospitals and in the state's home care and child care industry.

Tuesday's rally fell on the day that e-commerce giant Amazon.com said it is boosting its minimum wage for all U.S. workers to $15 per hour starting next month.

The rally followed several union contract disputes this summer. In July, Service Employees International Union Local 1 struck a deal to increase janitors' wages to $15 per hour over the next three years. Last week, the Michigan Infrastructure and Transportation Association said it was replacing union road workers with non-union operators to restart roadwork after the group locked out members of Operating Engineers Local 324, and the Michigan Nurses Association reached a tentative agreement with the University of Michigan after months of bargaining.