The largest walkout yet of fast food workers took place on Friday in Detroit when about 400 workers at restaurants like McDonald’s, Long John Silver’s, Burger King, and others joined the wave of fast food strikes that began in New York and has spread westward.
“The growth of this entire thing has been quite organic,” said the Rev. Charles Williams II, president of the Michigan chapter of the National Action Network. “People are upset that their wages are low and their working conditions are bad. The divide between rich and poor has gotten greater and people have decided that there has to be more equality.”
The action in Detroit was organized by Detroit 15, a community, religious, and labor organization whose goal is to raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour.
Earlier in the week, about 100 workers in St. Louis walked off their jobs at fast food restaurants around the city. Like their counterparts in Detroit, the St. Louis workers are demanding a minimum wage of $15 an hour. The walkout was organized by the St. Louis Organizing Committee and STL Can’t Survive on $7.35.
“Workers in fast-food jobs are no longer freckle-faced teenagers looking for some summer pocket change,” said the Rev. Martin Rafanan, director of STL Can’t Survive on $7.35. “Increasingly, fast food jobs are the only options for St. Louisans, but these workers can’t even afford to pay for rent, food and carfare. If they workers earned more, fast food workers would spend that money at local businesses here in St. Louis and help lift our economy.”
In Detroit, organizers of the walkout said that the strike shut down multiple McDonald’s restaurants, one Long John Silver’s, one Burger King, two Popeye’s, and a KFC. Many Detroit fast food workers like Claudette Wilson are paid the state minimum wage of $7.40 an hour even though they are adults and have years of experience. “(My pay) is the same as when I started working in the fast food industry three years ago,” said Wilson, 20 to the Associated Press. “We’re the fastest-growing job market in the country with the lowest pay.”
Low pay with little chance to advance are a common bond shared by fast food workers across the nation.
“I’ve been at Jack in the Box for four years, cleaning and prepping food and all I get paid is $7.55 without any benefits,” said Anita Gregory, a fast food worker in St. Louis. “I’m tired of having to struggle to survive while working so hard.”
While Gregory and Wilson struggle to make ends meet, their employers are doing quite well.
Between 2007 and 2011, while most workers were dealing with the aftershocks of the Great Recession, McDonald’s profits increased by 135 percent. In 2011, the fast food giant’s highest paid executive was paid $8.8 million.
Yum! brands, which owns Taco Bell and Pizza Hut, also did well. During the same period, its profits increased 45 percent. Its highest paid executive in 2011 was paid $20.4 million.
While fast food corporations prosper, more and more US workers are becoming part of the low-wage, fast food workforce.
According to the National Employment Law Project, the food service, retail, and employment services have added 1.7 million jobs, about 43 percent of the employment growth since the recession was declared to have ended in 2008.
At the same time, the growth of decent paying middle-class jobs has been anemic. Fewer opportunities to work at good paying jobs means that more workers are having to settle for low-paid work.
With so many people forced to work in low-wage jobs, it’s difficult to see how the present minimum wage is sustainable. “There are days I wonder, ‘how am I going to get home’ because I can’t afford my bus fare,” said Patrick Leeper, who has worked at a St. Louis Chipotle for more than three years, “Sometimes I walk for more than an hour just to save my train fare so I can spend it on Ramen noodles. I can’t even think about groceries.”
“(Fast-food chains) make $200 billion a year, and they’re crying about giving minimum-wage workers $15 an hour?” said Pastor W.J. Rideout III of All God’s People Church in Detroit. “It’s time to stop giving them slave wages and give them something that they deserve.”