“Giving Up Food So Our Children Can Eat”: The Workers Using Hunger Strikes to Protest for a Living Wage

This article was published by TalkPoverty.org.

As spring came to Rhode Island in 2014, Dominican hotel housekeeper Santa Brito and fellow hotel workers Ylleny Ferraris, Mirjaam Parada, and Mariano Cruz were gathering signatures for a Providence $15 wage initiative. “We had to divide up,” says state representative Shelby Maldonado. “We asked: Who speaks the best Spanish? The best Creole?” Maldonado, a child of Guatemalan immigrants and a former UNITE HERE organizer, says that Rhode Island’s immigrant workforce viscerally understood the issues at stake.

They delivered their petitions. The city council put their living-wage initiative on the November ballot. When they convened a public hearing, a hundred hotel workers came to watch. Twenty-two registered to testify. They took time off, found babysitters, and wrote their testimonies.

Then, at the last minute, the hearing was canceled.

Brito was angry. She believed city officials had been pressured by the Procaccianti Group, a hotel management and construction company that donates heavily to Rhode Island political campaigns. “The Procacciantis,” she said, made her clean 18 rooms daily, made her work till the day she gave birth. Then “the hotel told me they couldn’t guarantee me a job. I was fired for speaking out. I know it.” She shakes her head, disgusted. “I used to be afraid, but I’ve lost my fear. What else can they do to me?”

“I have the power, the will, and the strength to fight and take a stand,” she says. “I have a right to create a union in my workplace and fight to correct grievances. It’s very important to be united at work, to be able to confront the injustices we face.”

It seemed for a while that the workers were winning, that the $15 wage would become law in Providence. Then state legislators introduced a pre-emption bill, banning local governments from enacting a wage higher than the Rhode Island minimum, which was only $8 an hour. Brito was outraged. “I have to borrow money from my brothers and cousins just to pay off my bills,” she said.

The Rhode Island legislature was majority Democratic, but hotel and restaurant owners lobbied hard. They paid $100,000 to lobbyists to push the bill. “House leadership is moving to jail us in poverty,” said Brito. Brito and Ferraris announced a life-or-death fight for Rhode Island’s working families. Seventy-three percent of jobs in the state paid too little to live on. The state’s workforce — Dominican, Guatemalan, South American, Haitian, and Cape Verdean immigrants — lived in poverty, says Maldonado, unable to feed their children decently. So Brito and Ferraris, hotel chef Mirjaam Parada, and Maldonado decided to stage a huelga de hambre — a hunger strike. Setting up camp on the steps of the state capitol, the women told reporters they were giving up food so that the state’s children might have enough to eat.

Photographs of the four women, and of Brito’s young son, circulated widely. It wasn’t enough. A majority voted for preemption.

By 2017, with Rhode Island’s minimum still only $9.60 an hour, service workers seeking raises began reaching out to sympathetic business owners. Jeremiah Tolbert, owner of Jerry’s Beauty Salon in Providence, became a spokesperson. He upped his workers’ wages to $15, then invited the press to explain why. When small businesses pay more, local workers have money in their pockets to spend. For Tolbert, raising wages has been “a win-win.” He has urged other local businesses to follow suit.

Nine months later and 3,000 miles away, another group of hunger strikers from Walmart battled for a living wage. Los Angeles mayor Eric Garcetti had long insisted that he would only support raising the city wage to $13.25, says Denise Barlage. In April 2015, she and seven other women workers sat down outside LA City Hall. They sat there for two weeks, consuming only tea and water. Though temperatures hovered in the 60s, Barlage felt cold by the sixth day without food. Her blood pressure was low. She donned a hat and gloves to keep it from falling further.

“We were ready to be arrested,” she recalls. “We were going to handcuff ourselves to the building.” Then they saw the mayor walking toward them. They held up their sign: “Women Fast for $15.” The mayor stopped. He looked at them, leaned down. “Then he told us he was on board with 15,” Barlage remembers. Weak from days of fasting, some of the women began to cry.

Before breaking their fast, the hunger strikers testified before the city council at a minimum wage hearing. The strikers were mothers and grandmothers who worked two or three jobs to survive, Barlage says, but still had to choose “whether to feed their children or themselves. That’s just wrong.” The women spoke of their fears of eviction and homelessness. They told of kids who didn’t have decent clothes for school or bus fare to get there.

“I am Mary Carmen Farfan, mother of four. I work at Burger King,” one woman began. “I decided to make a fast for my kids, for my family, for my coworkers. These are single mothers. We have struggled to pay rent, to feed our kids … I can’t … because I have only $9 for a minimum wage.” No one can afford to live in LA on less than $15 an hour, Mary said. She also told city officials how she shared a home with nineteen people from three families who earned between $9 and $13 an hour. By hearing’s end, LA’s City Council had voted for the $15 wage, says Barlage. “What that felt like, I can’t describe.”

Barlage is one among many living-wage activists for whom hunger strikes have become a way of life, a potent weapon because it crystallizes the moral bottom line of this struggle. “So many workers today are used to being hungry,” Barlage says. “Hunger doesn’t scare us. It only scares people who aren’t used to it.”

Seven months after their successful fast in LA, Walmart workers fasted for ten days on Manhattan’s most famously wealthy boulevard, Park Avenue. They chose the Thanksgiving holiday — a ritualized celebration of American overindulgence — to highlight hunger among Walmart workers. Barlage came. So did workers from Florida, Virginia, Minnesota, and Maryland, their neon-green OUR Walmart shirts glowing in the gray November chill as they sat outside Walmart heiress Alice Walton’s penthouse. Walton sits on a personal fortune north of $33 billion, and her apartment was rumored to have cost $25 million.

Sacramento activist Tyfani Faulkner says she came because “people don’t realize that many Walmart workers are starving.” She says it galls her that her colleagues are hungry. “You’re working at this huge grocery store and workers are living off ramen noodles and chips because they can’t afford to eat better. I thought fasting was a great way to show that and to be in solidarity with those who aren’t eating, not because they don’t want to but because they don’t earn enough to eat well.”

“We didn’t see Alice Walton the whole week,” she says. The doorman told Barlage that Walton had groceries delivered rather than walk past the hunger strikers. “He told us she was up there drinking Scotch and smoking cigarettes, rather than talk to us.” Meanwhile, the protesters lived on donated broth and tea. “I stayed and fasted for ten days,” Barlage says, “because I didn’t have a job to go back to. Walmart had closed our store. They said it was plumbing problems but it was because we were too loud and strong.”

The Park Avenue hunger strike was part of a nationwide “Fast for $15.” A thousand people across the United States forswore food for two weeks leading up to the shopping frenzy that is Black Friday. Some fasted in front of the Carmel, California, mansion of Walmart chairman Greg Penner. Bleu Rainer fasted in front of a Tampa Walmart. Fasting workers could be seen outside many Walmart stores. Finding a thousand people to fast might have been hard except that hunger is a condition that low-wage workers know too well. “I have had to rely on food stamps to get a good meal,” Rainer says. “And when those food stamps run out, it’s back to square one, which is nothing at all.”

Hunger is widespread in the United States. In 2016, more than 60 million Americans qualified for food aid. That’s nearly 20 percent of citizens in the richest country in the history of the world. Forty-five million Americans that year received assistance through SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program), the federal program that used to be called food stamps. (Most people who receive it still do call it that.)

But in some U.S. counties, as many as two-thirds of hungry citizens do not receive aid. Toward the end of George W. Bush’s presidency and at the beginning of Barack Obama’s, expansions in federal food aid cut the numbers of hungry Americans significantly. But then, Congress and state legislatures slashed budgets and tightened eligibility. And the number of hungry Americans rose again. Many of the hungriest are children.

Hunger is endemic in places you’d least expect, in affluent states like New York and California, and even more so in the nation’s most expensive cities and suburbs. Forty-two percent of students in the University of California system did not have enough to eat in 2016. Forty-five percent of UC employees said they were frequently hungry. Twenty-five percent ate substandard food because they could not afford better. Seventy percent skipped meals to save money.

And these are the winners: students and employees at one of the world’s great university systems. Fifty-eight percent of surveyed employees held bachelor’s degrees or higher. Ninety-six percent worked full-time and were the primary earners for their families. Clearly, they represent just the tip of the iceberg of hunger in America.

“The thing that so many Americans just don’t seem to get,” says Barlage, “is that Walmart workers and McDonald’s workers and so many other working people in this country are really, actually hungry all the time.” OUR Walmart activists ask workers who bring lunch to “pool what we have so everyone can get a little — chips, some sandwich. Otherwise a lot of people won’t have anything to eat. We take Walmart’s line about how we’re all family seriously — even if they don’t.” Pooling food has become part of what the movement does. “That’s why we do hunger strikes. Two weeks without food. I might feel a little cold. My blood pressure might drop a little. But I can do it. Hunger doesn’t scare me.”