An estimated 1,000 fast food workers across the United States went on strike Friday over low wages, staging protests in honor of Martin Luther King Jr. ahead of the federal holiday next week.
The demonstrations were set to take place in more than 15 cities, including Atlanta, Chicago, St. Louis and Los Angeles. The strike was organized by supporters of Fight for $15 and a Union, the labor advocacy group that has been pushing to raise the federal minimum wage from $7.25 to $15 an hour and grant collective bargaining rights to fast food employees, who are disproportionately Black and Brown.
Fight for $15 organizing director Allynn Umel said her organization’s cause is one King would have championed, noting that the civil rights icon marched in support of labor rights for Memphis sanitation workers the day before he was assassinated in 1968.
“There are workers in the South still continuing to carry on that legacy to fight for racial and economic justice because they know those fights are intertwined,” Umel told CNN Business on Friday.
Nearly 20% of the estimated 3.9 million fast food workers in America are Black, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, though Black Americans make up just 13% of the US population. Umel said fast food companies that support King’s legacy and want to continue his fight against institutional racism can start by increasing their workers’ pay and letting them unionize.
“Raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour is among the most powerful tools to lift up Black and Brown workers,” she said.
The striking protesters work at many of the country’s most popular chains, including McDonald’s (MCD), Taco Bell and Burger King.
McDonald’s cook Rita Blalock, 54, of Raleigh, North Carolina, was one of dozens of fast food employees participating in a car caravan protest outside a McDonald’s restaurant in the nearby city of Durham on Friday.
Blalock said her employer cut her hours back in March when Covid-19-related lockdowns caused many fast food chains to lose business. Since then, Blalock, who says she makes $10 an hour, has been struggling to pay her bills. She said McDonald’s could improve her situation by raising their minimum wage nationally and granting workers like her guaranteed benefits, including medical insurance and paid sick leave.
“I couldn’t pay rent, couldn’t eat a lot of times,” she told CNN Business. “If you can’t go to work but so many hours, you don’t have enough to cover what you need to cover in the first place.”
McDonald’s said it unequivocally supports the need for racial equality and social justice and that Friday’s strike doesn’t reflect how it has protected and provided employment to more than 800,000 people during the pandemic. The company stopped lobbying against increases to the federal minimum wage in 2019, and says elected officials have a responsibility to debate, change and set the standards.
“We strive to ensure that everyone who works under the Arches shows up each day to a safe and inclusive workplace that provides access to continuous opportunities,” McDonald’s spokesperson Jesse Lewin said via email.
Wanda Lavender works as a manager at a Popeyes in Milwaukee. The 39-year-old single mother of six participated in a car caravan protest outside a McDonald’s in Milwaukee Friday afternoon. She said she makes $12 an hour and works more than 50 hours a week at Popeyes. Lavender says she hasn’t been getting paid for sick leave or vacation days since 2019.
“These are the things we were fighting for over 50 years ago and we’re fighting for those same things now,” she said.
Popeyes didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.
A turning point
Umel said the Fight for $15 movement reached a milestone in 2020, when the Covid-19 pandemic forced many Americans to take a hard look at the plight of the largely Black and Brown working poor. Fast food employees make up a large chunk of the essential workers who have continued to go into work while many other Americans worked from home.
In the beginning, many struggled to find personal protective equipment to wear on the job as their employers scrambled to provide them with masks, gloves and cleaning supplies.
The saga played out on the news all year long, in front of a largely captive audience of remote workers and the unemployed. It resulted in 20 states agreeing to raise their minimum wage and President-elect Joe Biden advocating for raising the federal minimum to $15 an hour as part of his proposed $1.9 trillion Covid-19 relief package.
“This moment really comes down to a change and a realization of the value of work,” Umel said. “It is a recognition that it is well beyond time to make sure this happens.”