Labor activists continue push for $15 minimum wage and fast food unions

05/15/14 Janelle Irwin
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Tags: fast food, minimum wage, Fight for Fifteen, McDonalds, Arby's, labor, unions


Labor activists lined the sidewalk in front of McDonald's on Kennedy Boulevard hoping to grow support for livable wages.

photo by Janelle Irwin

More than 50 fast food workers and their allies flooded the sidewalk in front of McDonald’s on Kennedy Boulevard near downtown Tampa early Thursday morning protesting what they’re calling poverty wages. The rally is part of a worldwide worker’s strike that spans more than 150 cities on 6 continents.

Protesters carried signs saying $15 and a union highlighting their push for a nationwide minimum wage of $15 dollars an hour and the right to unionize without fear of repercussion. Critics of raising the minimum wage argue it’s bad for the economy and would drive up prices. According to a New York Times analysis, raising the minimum wage that high would lead to a 60% price hike for consumers. What does that mean? Well, a $3 burger would instead cost about $3.50. That’s a difference activist Gilbert Bentley would be happy to incur.

“The people who are working day in and day out and barely scraping by – can’t afford their bills, can’t afford to pay their debts to keep this economy going. The more money people have, the more they spend and the better quality of life they have, the more likely they would be to be able to go to schools and get a higher education or pick up a trade.”

There’s also a growing argument among labor activists that low wages are causing corporate welfare. The leading example is Wal-Mart. According to a study by Americans for Tax Fairness, the big-box giant costs taxpayers more than $6 billion annually because low wages force workers into government assistance programs like food stamps and Medicaid. Crystal Wilson used to work for Wal-Mart.

“That’s why so many people are on government assistance when they work at McDonald’s and when they work at Wal-Mart. It’s because they don’t make enough. So, if you raise the minimum wage they can get off of government assistance and they can take care of themselves. They can be truly independent. So, sometimes it sounds like the system is actually created for people to be dependent on the government. So, if you really want to change it, than change the wages.”

McDonald’s has an online tool called McResource that helps workers find public assistance. The fast food company has also been mocked for posting a sample budget that assumed the worker had two jobs, estimated health insurance at $20 a month and excluded costs like child care or gas. Wilson said not only are there social and economic benefits to paying employees better, it’s also good for business.

“When you give them a true living wage, they’ll be happy to come to work. They’ll be happy to give you services. They will be truly happy and then they can go home and talk good about – they pay me this excellent wage. Yeah, you should work for McDonald’s, become a manager. It makes them want to grow within that company, but if you pay them like crap and you treat them like crap, why give your customers the best service they deserve.”

Organizers of the rally said there were workers striking from that McDonalds today, but a spokesperson for the company said that as of 6:30 – a half hour after activists showed up – no one had left the job and everyone clocked in. There were other strikers though. Reeka Mack won’t be showing up for her shift at the Wendy’s on Florida Avenue and Waters this afternoon.

“Because I left from Tampa General making $9.50 to Wendy’s making $7.93. And it just raised up to $7.93 this year.”

And Drelynne Finley is boycotting his job for the day at Arby’s on East Fletcher too.

“People tell you to go and go to school and all that. The thing is though, I have all that. I have an Associate’s degree in criminal justice but I didn’t go that path. Here I am finding myself in fast food. Fast food’s not a bad career. It’s a good career. The thing about it is they pay you low and work you hard.”

Some of the striking workers haven’t told their bosses they’re striking. Instead, they said they were told a letter would be given to employers later today. But Finley mentioned what he was doing to one of his managers.

“He did say that if this does work, our stores going to shut down. But I think that’s a scare tactic. Even if they [are] a penny-pinching company, I believe they’ll still make it.”

There was speculation that some local unions had been paying workers to strike for the day. Both Mack and Finley said they weren’t given any compensation, but they were recruited by organizers. They wouldn’t go on record about the rumors, but Kofi Hunt, a political organizer from Pinellas County, said he’s heard that argument from fast food spokespeople before.

“It’s preposterous to say that workers would need any reason other than being able to feed their families to come out here. We’re not giving out any incentives. They had that claim before. I personally brought 20 people out here that are people from the community to stand with workers and they weren’t here for anything other than justice.”

There were two uniformed Tampa Police officers and a plain clothes detective at the protest making sure no one got unruly. A spokesperson for Caspers Company which owns many of the local McDonalds said Caspers hired the off duty officers. Another protest is scheduled at the Arby’s on East Fletcher Avenue Thursday at 4:30 p.m.

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