By Catherine Crowe, SAF Intern
On October 23, 2014, Raise up for $15 hosted an allies meeting and invited individual and organizational supporters of the movement in solidarity with the fast food workers’ campaign to raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour. As farmworker advocates, we realize that exploitation in the food supply chain continues all the way from the farmworkers who grow the produce to the fast food workers who sell the food. The farmworker and fast-food worker struggles are one and the same.
The Fight for $15 began two years ago as a national movement of fast food workers demanding a living wage. Currently the national minimum wage is $7.25 an hour. According to the Fight for $15 website, 52% of fast food workers rely on public assistance because they cannot survive on their current wages. Essentially, companies like McDonald’s and Burger King externalize their costs by placing the burden on taxpayers, who collectively pay $7 billion each year to support fast-food workers through public benefits.
The local chapter of Fight for 15, called Raise Up for 15, works out of Durham. They organized their first fast-food worker strike in August 2013 and since then have held three more strikes with sizeable worker support and turnout despite organizing in a Right-to-Work state.
At the allies meeting, a few workers shared their stories about why they participated in the strike and why they need a union and $15/ hour. Nakiel, a Burger King worker, said that even though he had been working for a long time, he was still making a little over minimum wage. He said that $15 an hour was necessary to provide for his kids. He also said he needed $15 to live with a sense of dignity and to fund small things like haircuts that allow him to feel good about himself. Ebony, another Burger King worker, talked about how the movement inspired and empowered her. Participating in the strikes gave her a sense of hope when she saw everyone united, demanding respect for workers. “Hope is my gas,” she said.
Workers and organizers then talked about the successes and challenges of the campaign. Workers in North Carolina have seen miniscule raises since the campaign began, but the Fight for $15 campaign has had significant victories in other states. Also, in a less direct way, the campaign has raised national consciousness on workers’ rights and changed the discourse of what is a fair and living wage. When Obama first took office, he proposed a new minimum wage of $9.50, but today talks on raising the wage focus on a minimum of more than $10 an hour. In the recent 2014 election, four states passed measures to raise the minimum wage, the highest being Alaska with an increase to $9.75 by 2016. The bar has been raised and continues to rise.
After the workers spoke about their campaign, they opened the floor and asked for the allies to share why they supported the Fight for 15. Justin Flores from the Farm Labor Organizing Committee (FLOC) said that FLOC supported the movement because of the intersectionality of farmworker and fast-food worker issues. Flores explained that low wages are also a problem for farmworkers, who are exempt from the $7.25 minimum wage. However, he said that farmworkers who are involved in FLOC’s campaigns are struggling to ensure that they are even paid that low minimum wage.
Students also had a large presence at the meeting. One ally commented that current students are part of the most underpaid and most in debt generation. Students will soon enter the workforce, and many will be forced to survive on low wages, compounded by hefty student loans. Student activist groups such as United Students Against Sweatshops from Duke and UNC also talked about their work with campus workers to increase wages and win union rights.
The fast food worker’s ability to live, and live with dignity, is imperative for all of us, whether we are professionals, students, workers, homemakers, organizers, or farmworkers. As Fannie Lou Hamer famously said, “Nobody’s free until everybody’s free.” Fast food workers will host rallies across the South on December 4th for $15 an hour and union rights. Everyone is encouraged to join. Raise Up!
To learn more about Raise Up for 15: