News Column

Hundreds of Fast-food Workers Protest for Higher Wages

May 10, 2013

From a McDonald's in Florissant to a Wendy's in Rock Hill, to an Arby's in the Central West End, a wave of protests and wildcat strikes rippled across the St. Louis region Thursday as fast-food workers took to the streets to demand better pay and working conditions.

More than 100 people walked off their jobs at about 30 restaurants, and rowdy street protests took place outside at least five in what organizers hoped would be the start of a much larger, long-term push to raise wages in the fast-food industry here.

Dubbed "St. Louis Can't Survive on $7.35," the campaign is building on similar efforts in Chicago and New York, where retail and restaurant workers have walked out to protest low wages in recent months. Here the effort is being organized by a coalition of community, labor and faith-based groups that are aiming to prod the massive fast-food industry to pay its tens of thousands of local workers more, with a goal of $15 an hour.

For reasons of supply and demand, fierce competition and the likelihood that few are eager to pay $10 for a Big Mac, wages for low-skill, high-turnover jobs in fast food are notoriously low. But for people such as Kenta Jackson of Pagedale, the desire for a bigger paycheck comes down to the ability to make a decent living.

"We can't survive on this kind of pay," said Jackson, who was on strike from a Church's Chicken in the Delmar Loop. "We're working 40 hours a week and we still need to be on government assistance."

That message came up time and again in Thursday's rolling strikes.

When the Wendy's on Manchester Road in Rock Hill unlocked its doors at 10, it did so with more than 50 protesters crowding the sidewalk outside, chanting, some into megaphones, about wages and justice: "We want change, and we don't mean pennies ..."

Meanwhile, managers inside talked on cellphones, and line workers readied for lunch, peering occasionally out the drive-through window. It was 40 minutes before the first customer showed up, and a red-shirted manager stood at the corner, telling people it was OK to come in.

One of the people protesting out on the street was Jamanda Gordon, a Webster University student who normally puts in 40 hours a week at that Wendy's, making $8.25 an hour. Half her paycheck, Gordon said, goes to pay off the loan on her car, which she needs to get from home in St. Louis to work and school. Food and other needs gobble up what's left pretty quick.

"I'm tired of struggling," said Gordon, who helped organize five of her co-workers to also walk out Thursday.

Managers at the Rock Hill Wendy's declined to comment, aside from saying the store was open and that a crew of hourly workers had shown up for their shifts. A spokesman in the company's corporate office in Ohio said, "We are proud of the opportunities that Wendy's provides to thousands of Americans who work in our restaurants. We provide a place for people to initially enter the workforce and advance, through their initiative and abilities, into higher positions in our restaurants and beyond."

Gordon said she'll be back at work for her 11:30 shift Friday, proud that she took a stand and not afraid of any retaliation. Mostly, she said, she hopes the people who run Wendy's get the message, and that leads to better treatment for workers.

"They need me just like we need them," she said. "I consider this the foundation of something bigger."

Martin Rafanan hopes so, too. A Lutheran minister and co-chairman of the Workers Rights Board of Missouri Jobs with Justice, he helped organize the strikes, but he was realistic about their impact.

Better wages won't happen overnight, he acknowledged, and they won't happen just because of short walkouts at a handful of the region's hundreds of fast-food joints. But they just might start to happen if enough people begin to speak up, Rafanan said. Thursday's protests were about starting that process.

"These workers will continue to build something," he said. "This is going to go on for a long time, and we are not going away."

Still, it's going to take a lot of work to make even a dent. Even as 150 protesters marched up and down Lindell Boulevard, chanting in the rain from Arby's to McDonald's to Domino's, past a Jack in the Box and a Qdoba, they appeared to have little impact on the lunchtime rush, just supportive honks from drivers and a few people stepping out of their offices to take video of the march on cellphones.

And by the time the protesters headed off to a lunch of their own before more marching in the afternoon, things were back to normal entirely at Arby's, with a line at the drive-through, a full crew in the kitchen and a mechanical slicer clanking away, cutting meat for one $3.19 Roast Beef Classic after another.

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(c)2013 the St. Louis Post-Dispatch

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Source: Copyright St. Louis Post-Dispatch (MO) 2013