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Fast Food Workers Strike For More Than Slave Wages
12/10/2014 2:54:27 PM

Charleston resident and fast food worker Erica Coakley & ILA Local 1422 Co-Chair Leonard Riley, Jr. protest for higher wages in front of Burger King at the Tanger Outlets in North Charleston December 4, 2014. Photo: Tolbert Smalls, Jr.
By Barney Blakeney

Dec. 4 fast food workers in the Charleston area joined others in 160 cities around the country in staging the biggest strike ever to hit the industry protesting for increased wages to $15 per hour. Groups of workers from local McDonalds, Burger King, Hardees and other fast food restaurants conducted protest strikes at fast food restaurants on Ashley Phosphate Road and Centre Pointe Drive in North Charleston.

The strikes came a week after Walmart workers led strikes on and leading up to Black Friday in protest of the company’s threat against workers calling for increased wages to $15 per hour and full time employment.

The growing ‘Fight for $15’ struggle continues to draw more supporters. In November San Francisco, Cali. became the third U.S. city to adopt a $15 per hour minimum wage joining Seattle and SeaTac, Wash. Since the first strike in 2012 some 7.6 million workers have gotten wage increases through local ballot measures, city and state legislation and contract negotiations.

Organizers vow strikes will continue to hit new cities as the fight for $15 reaches more low wage workers in the service industry. In the future fast food workers in Jackson, Miss., Knoxville, Tenn. and Buffalo, N.Y. will be walking off their jobs for the first time. Demetria, a worker at a local Checkers did that Dec. 4.

Demetria has worked in the fast food industry 11 years since she was age 16. She hopes to eventually become a nurse, but for the time being, her fast food job helps her to support her two sons. That’s difficult when she earns only $8 per hour.

She wants others, especially those with families and children, to understand the necessity of a struggle born from her commitment to raise her boys. “I want to make a better living for my boys,” she said.

Erica Coakley also began her employment as a fast food worker at age 16. But the 34-year-old mother of three is quick to emphasize that the work no longer is reserved for teenagers and college students. Her work experience includes jobs in other industries, customer service and retail sales. But when her previous job shut down due to the recession, she returned to the industry she knew well. The prevalence of the low wage jobs offered her an accessible option.

Coakley challenges those who say adult fast food workers should seek better education and training if they want higher paying jobs. She said sometimes there are obstacles that make those options unattainable. But even so, all workers deserve an honest day’s pay for an honest day’s work. And somebody has to do the work in the fast food industry. They play a viable role in the economy, she said.

“We don’t get paid for our experience, we don’t get sick leave, vacation, holiday pay or maternity leave. We don’t work 40 hours a week so the companies don’t have to give us any benefits.” As the cost of living has increased, wages among the workforce in the fast food industry hasn’t kept up, said Coakley who earns only $7.50 per hour.

“I’m not ashamed that I receive government assistance, but I never did while I was working on other jobs. I can’t raise my family on $7.50 an hour so you do what you have to do. And it’s not just fast food workers, its people who work at gas stations, in grocery stores, in retail and even newspaper reporters. It’s everybody who’s overworked and underpaid. Somebody’s got to do those jobs and they should be paid fairly,” Coakley said.

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