In the wake of strikes that started in New York back in November and more protests throughout the Midwest earlier this summer, fast food employees in the South and on the West Coast are planning walk-outs of their own.
Today, fast food workers in more than 35 cities across the country are striking and protesting to demand higher wages. Workers at restaurants such as McDonald's and Burger King as well as retailers like Macy's and Dollar Tree say they are tired of being paid minimum wage or just slightly above, claiming that supporting a family on those wages put them below the poverty line in the United States. Fast food employees are now asking to be paid $15 an hour.
It's no coincidence that the strikes are happening the day after the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, during which Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. gave his famous "I Have A Dream" speech. Fifty years ago, the march was a rally against discriminatory hiring and racial inequality. Today, the protesters are hoping to achieve a large pay increase in order to be able to support themselves financially.
Here in Houston, a rally is planned for early Thursday morning, but the fast food employees and organizers are keeping quiet about the exact time and location of the strike. It's rumored to be outside of a McDonald's on the west side, but none of the McDonald's employees we talked to would answer any questions for fear of losing their jobs.
One person who is answering questions is State Representative Armando Walle of Houston's District 140. The rights of fast food employees hit close to home for him.
While he was growing up, Walle's mother worked at the Church's Chicken at Tidwell and Airline to support her four children. Walle explains that he was born when his mother was only 16, and she was never able to get the education that would allow her to work jobs with better pay or benefits.
"She was trying to pick herself up and get a job," Walle says, "but the only jobs available for her education experience were in fast food. I was fortunate to do well in school and break the cycle of poverty, but there were times when we didn't know if our lights were going to be cut off. It's very personal to me."
Walle hopes that the protests will shed light on the plight of these hardworking individuals who can barely make ends meet due to their low income. Minimum wage in the United States is currently $7.25, which adds up to a yearly income of $15,080. For a single mother with four children like Walle's mother, that's $8,470 below the poverty line.
Richie Jackson, CEO of the Texas Restaurant Association, has told a number of publications including the Texas Tribune and Dallas News that most fast food employees are young and just entering the workforce. He says that about half of all fast food workers are teenagers and 70 percent are under 25. People like Jackson don't think that 16-year-olds without a high school diploma should be making enough money to support an entire family anyway, and that fast food jobs often lead to better employment in the future, once workers have graduated from high school.
According to data from the AFL-CIO and the Center for Economic and Policy Research though, half of fast food workers are 23 or older, with a median age of 28. More than one-third of them are raising children. Most of them have high school degrees. A report by the National Employment Law Project found that only 2.2 percent of fast food industry jobs are technical, managerial or professional, which means that the vast majority of employees are working jobs that may not have any upward mobility.
People who are opposed to the strikes claim that they were organized by paid political activists like the Service Employees International Union, not the employees themselves. They claim that union membership is declining, and because of that, unions are looking to new areas to recruit members.
Regardless of who's behind the strikes, people like Walle see the protests as a good opportunity to talk about the plight of the fast food employee, particularly in Texas. According to the National Restaurant Association, Texas has the second-largest restaurant workforce in the country (1.07 million people) as well as the largest percentage of minimum wage workers (13 percent). There are a lot of people working minimum wage jobs in Texas.
"We need to shed light on these families who are working hard to make ends meet and continue to find themselves in a hole," Walle says. "I want to let the public know that there are a lot of hardworking folks. I don't dispute that fast food are entry level jobs, but there are a lot of older folks too."
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Fifty years ago, the people who marched on Washington demanded that all Americans have a decent standard of living. At the time, that meant raising the minimum wage to $2 an hour. Adjusted for inflation, that's $15.26 an hour today.
"I think it's obtainable," Walle says when asked if he thinks the strikes will pay off. "For me, $15 when I look at it now is not a lot of money. You're still at the poverty level for a family of four. A lot of these people are teenagers, but some of them are families, and even the teenagers are sometimes helping their parents pay the bills."
There's no word on how long the strike will last or what kind of agreement must be struck between the protesters and corporations and franchisees for the rallies to end, but for now, there's a hum of excitement online and among the few people who know the plan of action. Rep. Walle is one of them.
"I want to participate," he says. "I'm ready to stand and fight for these families.