Reverend William Barber and strike participant on Nov. 4th (image from Dec 4: NC ON STRIKE for $15/hr and Union Rights! Facebook event)
Fast food workers across the state traded their uniforms for protest signs on Thursday, Nov 4th to demand higher wages and the right to unionize in North Carolina. As part of a nationwide strike organized by the Fight for 15 campaign, workers and their supporters gathered on street corners, in parking lots, and in the dining areas of fast food restaurants in Charlotte, Greensboro, Durham, Raleigh, Greenville, and elsewhere across the state, chanting, “We can’t survive on $7.25.”
Beginning in the early morning hours and continuing throughout the day, they shouted encouragement to their co-workers and fellow laborers who had already begun their shifts to step away from their stations and join them on the other side of the counter. Many of them did, emboldened by a growing movement that has built up momentum since the first strike in New York City on November 29, 2012.
WRAL reports that there are about 125,000 fast food workers in North Carolina, earning a median wage of $8.56 per hour. Tenesha Hueston, a manager at a Burger King in New Bern and a single mother of three, says she loves her job but can’t support her family on her wages. “It’s a billion-dollar industry, and they can pay us what we’re worth,” she told WRAL’s Julia Sims. The station published a statement issued by the North Carolina Restaurant & Lodging Association, which claims that the entry-level positions of many of the workers are intended to be temporary stepping stones toward higher-level jobs:
“While North Carolina’s unemployment rate remains one of the nation’s highest, the restaurant industry has been an economic bright spot in our state by providing good-paying, reliable jobs,” association president Lynn Minges said in a statement. “In the last year alone, more than 21,000 jobs were added in this sector in our state – keeping thousands of North Carolina families on solid financial ground and strengthening our state’s economy.
As the White House seeks to raise the minimum wage to $9.00 an hour, workers are willing to aim higher, expecting to compromise if any negotiations are reached. According to WRAL, “organizers of the walk-out in Durham said a single parent with one child would need to make $20 per hour just to pay for basic necessities.”
When Sims asked Marcel McGirk, a cashier at a Burger King in Raleigh, why workers don’t just go find a better-paying job, he replied, “Okay, if you think it was that easy don’t you think a lot of people would have other jobs, if it’s just that simple?”
In fact, according to the New York Times, many fast food workers are employed by two or more restaurants, working multiple shifts just to feed their families. Many others are forced to supplement their incomes with food stamps.
Observers and participants waging this labor rights battle might find hope in the precedent set by Moo Cluck Moo, a Detroit fast food chain that pays its workers $15.00 an hour and turns a profit. NPR’s All Things Considered spoke to the restaurant’s co-founder Brian Parker, who said that their concept of paying a living wage includes training workers in all elements of the business and providing job security. As NPR reported,
No one is just flipping burgers. All of the workers are expected to be jacks-of-all-trades: They bake buns from scratch daily, they house-make aioli and prepare made-to-order grass-fed burgers and free-range chicken sandwiches.
And, now, says Parker, the investment is paying off. Revenue is up at the chain’s two locations. And workers are sticking around. And their pay now? It’s up to $15 an hour. By comparison, a typical fast-food worker in the U.S. makes about $8 or $9 an hour.
“Because of our low turnover, and the fact that people are really into their jobs, $15 an hour wasn’t a big stretch,” Parker says.
Parker says there’s savings in not having to constantly train new hires, and his workers are empowered because they’re given so much responsibility.
Many believe this model could work for larger chains as well.
Reverend William Barber, President of the NC NAACP, arrived to address the crowd in front of a Wendy’s in Greensboro welcomed by a drum corps fanfare. He lauded the efforts of the workers, pledging the support of the national and local NAACP and aligning their struggle with the most potent civil rights achievements in the country. Barber told the crowd,
We are at a critical intersection in American history, and I believe that when you see the fight for living wages, the fight for voting rights and health care and immigrant rights and women’s rights and LGBT rights and public education and corrections in a broken criminal justice system, and policing, when all of those things are merging and coming together we are at a critical moment in history. Understand that: a critical moment.
The first principle of this country is not liberty. The first principle of this country, according to the Constitution, is the establishment of justice, and we must have justice in our wages.
View images of the state’s protests and hear Reverend Barber’s full speech here.