Fast Food Strikers Speak Out: Why They’re Taking The Risk Of Walking Off The Job

CREDIT: AP/David Goldman

A fast food worker on strike in Atlanta on Thursday

On Thursday, the most widespread strike in history hit the fast food industry, with workers walking off the job in 150 cities. It will also go global, with workers staging protests on six continents. The massive wave of strikes comes as the movement has been steadily building momentum, starting with just one strike in New York City in 2012 and spreading across the country.

What makes a worker at McDonald’s or Burger King screw up the courage to walk off her job and make demands of her employer? ThinkProgress spoke with some workers who would be new to the strikes on Thursday.

Jamie Branch, a McDonald’s employee in Rockford, Illinois, said she’s going on strike to demand the company better value her and her coworkers. “The reason I’m going on strike is because I feel like they are underpaying their workers,” she said, “because we do matter.” She trains coworkers at the chain and knows how much is expected of them. “We do the work of two to three people in any given day,” she said. Yet the workers struggle to get by. “That corporation is making billions of dollars in the same hour they’re paying me eight measly dollars,” she said. “It’s time for me to start getting acknowledged and treated as if I matter.”

Besides pay, she also wants the company to give workers paid vacation and holidays and to guarantee a minimum of hours. “We shouldn’t have to be forced to go out and find second jobs when we have jobs,” she added.

James Perez, a McDonald’s employee in Sacramento, California, which will experience its first-ever fast food strike on Thursday, is in it for slightly different reasons. He said that he’s involved for “fairness” and “better treatment at work.” At one point he saw something that wasn’t working well in his store, so he brought a complaint to his manager. “They totally ignored it and made me feel like I’m dumb for bringing it up,” he said. So going on strike is “an opportunity for me to get my voice out there so they’d have to listen.”

Brandon Roan, a McDonald’s worker in Springfield, Missouri, also has his sights set on a fairer workplace. Long before he heard of the Fight for 15 campaign that has been leading the strikes, he “felt we were being mistreated” and had talked to coworkers about going on strike. “I got berated by managers,” he said. Once he heard about Thursday’s strikes, he got “extremely excited” about joining in. He hopes to get the right to form a union at his store, one of the key demands strikers have been making. If an employee is wrongly fired for speaking out to management, something he says he’s seen happen over and over, “I believe that a united union of fast food workers could prevent such action from happening or revert it,” he said.

The stakes are high for all of these workers. Branch, who is 42, has worked on and off for McDonald’s since she was 16, yet she makes $8.42 an hour. She has three children and two grandchildren, and one of her grandchildren lives with her. “I have a family to support,” she said. But she lives paycheck-to-paycheck. “With the little bit of scraps that I’m getting from my job, I can barely pay my rent, let alone my gas bill, my light bill,” she said. “Who says entertainment is even in the picture. I feel like I don’t even have a right to entertainment because I don’t make enough money.”

Roan has been working at his store for eight years and is just now making $8.30 an hour. “I can’t afford to pay bills and then to buy food,” he said. “I have the choice to pay all the bills and go hungry or have a decent dinner and slack on something and then worry about it.”

The stories are common for the industry. The median wage is just $8.85, and fast food workers consume $243 billion in public benefits each year just to get by. Many don’t even get the full pay they’re promised, as 90 percent say their employers illegally reduce their wages by making them work off the clock or pay for their own uniforms. This isn’t just extra money or a starting job, either. Many are relying on it the way Branch and Roan are. The largest share of fast food jobs are held by people between the ages of 25 and 54, and a quarter have a child to support.