David Pinsonneault ’14
WARWICK, R.I. – Workers, community supporters, politicians, and religious leaders met outside at a Warwick Avenue Wendy’s at noon on December 5th. This was done in conjunction with a nationwide effort for fast food workers to earn $15.00 an hour and the right to form unions without interference from employers. The group gathered across the street from the Wendy’s and then walked over to deliver their message to the restaurant. Management locked their doors and did not allow the group inside. Further, management did not accept the strike notices delivered on behalf of the workers earlier in the day. The action took place in front of the Wendy’s where the group outlined why they were there.
A study conducted by the University of California at Berkely found that 52% of fast food workers rely on government assistance, compared with 25% of the workforce as a whole. The fast food industry is worth billions of dollars annually. Minimum wage in Rhode Island, however, stands at $7.75. As it was chanted on Thursday, “Can’t survive on $7.75.” Workers can be employed by a fast food employer for years and see very little pay increase. One woman who participated in the strike had been employed by the Warwick Avenue Wendy’s for a few years and still makes less than $8.00 an hour. In one year (working full-time), this amounts to about $15,000. How can making this amount of money pay for rent? How can this amount of money pay for childcare? How can this amount of money pay for health care? For food? The answer: it can’t. Workers in the fast food industry are not paid a living wage. The CEOs and upper level management in these corporations do not have to worry about paying for rent or health care. They maintain their comfortable lifestyles, while the day to day operations at the individual restaurants are maintained by workers who do not have wages that do them justice. It is time for this to change; it is time for corporations to know that they cannot continue to mistreat their workers.
In a survey of 500 fast food workers, 84% reported at least one instance of wage theft, while 30% reported at least four violations. Common sources of wage theft include unpaid work, not receiving required breaks, and delivery-related issues. This is what workers in the fast food industry are forced to deal with, and cannot complain about because their jobs are not protected. Many are asked to take out the garbage or count the money in the cash register before their shift starts or after it ends. This type of behavior cannot be tolerated. Fast food industry response has not been kind. While there have been pay increases in specific stores (not the chains as a whole), the industry argues that they would not be able to hire as many workers at $15.00 an hour and that entry-level jobs in their companies are for workers under the age of twenty-five. An industry making billions of dollars a year can still be profitable while providing living wages for their workers. The average age of a fast food worker is twenty-nine. It is a simple fact that the fast food industry does not rely heavily on teenagers. One-fourth of fast food workers have children to support. Fast food workers need a raise. And they need it now.
Today’s action was special because it brought together members of the community from different backgrounds: fast food workers, organizers, politicians, religious leaders, members of the community, and workers in other areas- either from other unions or people working in retail. Their shared a common goal: solidarity. Workers are stronger together. One member of Local 63, a firefighters union, was there because he wants to see a stronger middle class in the United States. This cannot happen if corporations insist on paying poverty wages to their workers. Work opportunities are not the same for all people. Segregation still exists. Racism still exists. Discrimination still exists. Government policies were largely responsible for creating ghettos and the subsequent problems people who live in low-income communities are faced with. This can be traced back to the Federal Housing Administration’s decision in the 1950s and 1960s to allow white people to move out of cities without allowing minorities to do the same. A living wage for all workers is one viable solution to help address these problems. President Obama wants to increase minimum wage to $10.00 an hour. He recently stated, “Fast-food workers, and nurse assistants, and retail salespeople who work their tails off and are still living at or barely above poverty.” This is the truth but it appears unlikely that the House will vote to increase minimum wage. This is why the action occurred in Warwick and across the United States. In part, it created a purposeful disruption in the everyday world of the fast food industry. It brought attention to workers and their rights. Corporations need to start listening. Every member in society should be able to have access to affordable housing, health care, and food. It is an individualistic approach to think that others deserve more because they had better opportunities presented to them. This is why today’s nationwide movement was powerful. It brought together a large community of people from different backgrounds to address inequality. And, if this community does not have their voice heard, their chants rang loudly, “We’ll be back, we’ll be back, we’ll be back!”