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"Fight for $15" rallies for higher minimum wage, right to unionize

Amazon raises minimum wage to $15 an hour
Amazon hikes minimum wage to $15 an hour for U.S. employees 03:56

Labor advocates pushing to raise the federal minimum wage have an unexpected new ally: the richest man in world.

As the "Fight for $15" kicks off its latest campaign, Amazon founder and CEO Jeff Bezos on Tuesday urged "our competitors and other large employers" to join the e-commerce giant in hiking worker pay, adding that "we listened to our critics." His call came as Amazon announced that it would raise the company's minimum wage to $15 an hour

The move came as hundreds of fast-food workers allied with Fight for $15 demonstrated in Michigan. Roughly 20 workers were arrested at a Detroit McDonald's on Tuesday as part of protest to support cooks and cashiers who are on strike to demand the right to unionize, according to Fight for $15. Among those taken into custody were Rashida Tlaib, who is running for the U.S. House of Representatives in Michigan's 13th District. 

Separately, several people were injured when a pickup truck hit a group of protesters near a fast-food restaurant in Flint in what police said appeared to have been a accident.

"We just came from the hospital. Several people were getting released," Service Employees International Union President Mary Kay Henry told The Associated Press. "Three still are being observed."

Michigan Democratic gubernatorial candidate Gretchen Whitmer was among those participating in the protest. She wasn't injured and a post on her Twitter account said she's "incredibly sad that so many people were hurt." 

Part of an effort to elect pro-union candidates in November, walkouts are planned in Milwaukee on Wednesday and Chicago on Thursday. On Thursday, higher education workers are expected to join fast food workers in a protest in Miami, Henry said.

In addition to scattered strikes planned for this week across the U.S., the Fight for $15 campaign said activists plan to knock on hundreds of thousands of doors in 11 states in an effort to elect candidates in November who will support workers' rights.  

Amazon, however, on Tuesday was no longer on the other side of the argument, with the company drawing praise from union activists.

Amazon's pay hike "shows the Fight for $15's momentum is unstoppable," Lachelle Slaughter, a McDonald's worker in Detroit said in a statement. "By joining together, speaking out and going on strike, we've convinced companies, politicians and the public that $15 an hour is the bare minimum anyone needs to survive," added Slaughter, among the workers participating in protests Tuesday afternoon in cities including Detroit and Flint, Michigan.

Fight for $15, a coalition of fast-food, retail and other workers, sprung up in New York City in 2012 and has since expanded into a global movement with activists in more than 300 cities around the world.  

Bezos also drew praise from frequent critic Sen. Bernie Sanders, with the Vermont independent calling a news conference on Tuesday to congratulate the entrepreneur for "doing exactly the right thing." 

Sanders says he now looks forward to working with Bezos on their shared goal of raising the federal minimum hourly wage to $15 from its $7.25. The federal minimum wage has not been raised in nearly a decade.

Beyond being "enormously important for Amazon's hundreds and thousands of workers," the company is leading the way for other profitable corporations in the retail and fast-food sectors to follow suit, said Sanders, who also cited the Fight for $15 movement.

Other experts predicted Amazon's pay hike would spur other other big retailers increase their compensation.

"This is going to be a big deal for very low-wage workers," said Ben Zipperer, an economist at the liberal Economic Policy Institute. "It's going to compel other businesses to raise wages as well." 

But some small business owners expressed concern about the impact of Amazon's move. Darren Moscato, who owns an Express staffing agency in Buffalo, New York, where the online retail titan has built a warehouse, said the higher pay offered by Amazon "will make it harder for local businesses to compete for workers."

Moscato noted that smaller companies typically spend more on labor than does Amazon, which uses more automation. "This is why Amazon is also pushing for a higher national minimum wage," Moscato said. "It will give them a competitive advantage."

-- The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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