Fast food workers walked off the job in some 35 cities today, including Chicago and Detroit, and in smaller cities like Durham, North Carolina. They’re demonstrating in support of higher wages and against low pay, long hours and no benefits. Right now the minimum wage is $7.25 an hour. Nationally the call is for $15 an hour.
It was still dark when the first fast food workers began to gather outside a Burger King restaurant in Durham – the one at Club Boulevard and Guess Road. A group of about 25 workers and their supporters chanted from the corner, "We can't survive on $7.25!"
The early morning rally didn’t bother 24-year-old Sarah Kelleh, she usually works the early shift at Burger King, beginning at 5am. She’s worked here for five years and lives with her parents. Kelleh says she’s tried to get a higher paying job.
"You know it’s real hard out here to find a job. So, everytime I find a job or I get interviewed, they never call me back. I don’t know," said Kelleh.
Kelleh says she doesn't plan on having this job forever.
Economists say that’s part of the problem. Fast food workers are having to work at what McDonald’s USA and Burger King Worldwide call “first” or “entry point” jobs for much longer periods of time.
Willietta Dukes is 39-years-old and works at Burger King as a Guest Ambassador.
“I open up, I make the tea, I set the lobby up for the customers to come in. I put the kid’s crowns out, I make the meals for the kids with the toys in them. I set up the front,” said Dukes.
Dukes worked at Church’s Chicken for several years before getting the job at Burger King a year ago. She says this job promised more hours and a better wage. But that hasn’t happened. She’s had to leave her home and move in with family to get by.
“I feel better as a server, I feel like it’s a gift, I don’t think it’s a curse. I don’t think I’m supposed to be a lawyer. I don’t think I’m supposed to be a doctor. I’m just good at what I do and I love doing it," said Dukes. "That’s the thing about it, I enjoy doing it.”
And she wants to get paid fairly for it. Dukes said she wanted to officially walk off the job, but when her boss got a whiff of the walk-out, she was taken off the schedule. Dukes was loud and proud at the rally, helping with one of the more popular chants, "Hold your pickles, hold your fries, make our wages supersize!"
Fast food workers reportedly walked off the job in Charlotte, Greensboro, Raleigh and Durham. Organizers say at least 100 workers went on strike at establishments in North Carolina like Taco Bell, KFC, Little Cesars, McDonalds and Burger King.
Robert Korstad is a professor of Public Policy at Duke University. On the “State of Things,” he said $15 an hour for fast food workers isn’t too much to ask.
“One of the reasons we’re seeing this great wealth inequality, increasing wealth inequality in the United States, is you got more and more companies in America paying large salaries for people at the top and very little for people at the bottom and it’s a real drain and drag on our economy,” said Korstad.
Korstad says ironically, by doubling the minimum wage, the restaurant industry would likely be one of the first industries to benefit from more cash in workers’ pockets.
Meanwhile, the Obama Administration has talked more about an increase to $9 dollars an hour for the minimum wage. Workers have said anything is better than nothing.
Reverend Jimmie Hawkins is Pastor of Covenant Presbyterian Church in Durham.
“I think right now the poor, and especially people who are not making a lot of money, are not given a decent break in America. We can do better than what we’re doing,” said Hawkins.
It’s a message with echoes from the “March on Washington” 50 years ago.