On April 15th, Providence became one of over 200 cities to participate in a “National Day of Action to Fight for $15.”
In a two hour march through downtown Providence, nearly 100 workers and activists visited businesses engaged in wage theft, low pay and anti-unionization efforts. The event was organized through Rhode Island Jobs with Justice in collaboration with Restaurant Opportunities Center of RI (ROC-RI), Fuerza Laboral, Carpenters Local 94, SEIU Rhode Island, UNITE HERE Local 217, Direct Action for Rights and Equality (DARE) and IUPAT Local 195 DC 11 Painters.
The groups are “seeking a city ordinance that would require all companies getting tax breaks in Providence to pay workers a living wage of at least $15/hr, provide paid sick days, health benefits, and fair, predictable schedules.” They also want the city to “follow the First Source ordinance by hiring residents of Providence, prioritize hiring people from high poverty neighborhoods, and make sure that people working these jobs have a pathway to a real career by using apprenticeship programs.”
The groups are also asking Mayor Jorge Elorza to live up to the campaign promises he made while still a candidate at a mayoral forum in South Providence, “to set up a community board with the power to approve/disapprove projects, take back money if companies aren’t living up to what they say they’ll do, and negotiate the construction of projects community members identify as needs, such as affordable housing, or fixing up an abandoned lot into a park.”
The Providence Police Department cleared the streets ahead of the marchers, who started their protest outside of Gourmet Heaven on Weybosset St. This is the third time protesters gathered outside the restaurant, which is accused of stealing wages from employees here in Rhode Island in a situation similar to Connecticut where substantial fines have been levied against the company for wage theft. Two workers addressed the crowd, and spoke about the abusive working conditions they say they endured. One worker said he was told, when he demanded his pay, that if he complained the management would have him deported.
The marchers then walked a short way up the street to Cilantro restaurant, a chain recently fined by the US Labor Department for wage theft to the tune of $100,000. Oddly, a Cilantro worker met the crowd, offering tortilla chips and bottled drinks, which were refused. “We don’t want your crumbs, we want our money,” quipped Michael Araujo of ROC-RI.
The march then continued across the city to the Providence Hilton Hotel, owned by The Procaccianti Group, where hotel workers were already outside picketing. The two groups merged into a protest of well over 150 people. The workers at the Providence Hilton announced a worker-led boycott of the hotel, joining the boycott efforts of workers at the Renaissance Providence Hotel (also owned by Procaccianti Group.) Employees from the Omni Providence Hotel were also on hand to support the boycott effort.
City Councillor Carmen Castillo spoke to the crowd about her experiences working at the Omni Providence Hotel, which was owned by the Procaccianti Group when it was called the Westin. Since the Procaccianti Group sold the hotel, worker conditions have markedly improved. Also speaking to the crowd was hotel worker Santa Brito.
The protest then headed for the Providence City Hall, stopping along the way at the Subway sandwich shop attached to the skating rink. Here Jo-Ann Gesterling, a fast food worker from Wendy’s, spoke to the crowd. Gesterling has led previous at her store and was arrested last year in Hartford CT during a Fight for $15 protest there. Gesterling talked about the importance of raising the minimum wage to $15, and about the effort to improve working conditions at her restaurant.
The final stop of the march was Providence City Hall, where Malchus Mills of DARE called on Mayor Jorge Elorza to honor his campaign commitments and enforce the First Source ordinance, which prioritizes city hiring from Providence communities. Mills also called upon the City Council to demand fair wages and benefits for workers from companies seeking tax stabilizations from the city. Also speaking at the City Hall was Jeffrey Santos, member of Carpenters Local 94.