On Tuesday, fast food workers will stage the biggest strike to ever hit the industry, with walkouts happening in a record 270 cities across the country. They’ll be demanding to be paid at least $15 an hour and be given the right to form a union — and rallies later in the day will include home care workers, child care providers, auto parts workers, farmworkers, and other low-paid employees who are trying to get the same things. In Milwaukee, protesters will end with a demonstration in front of the Republican debate venue.
It will be the first strike ever for Carlton Alexander, a Taco Bell employee in Tampa, Florida. “Tuesday will be my first big action,” he said. But he had heard about the Fight for 15 movement even before he got his job, after workers staged the first one-day strike in New York City in 2012.
You have to really count for every cent, almost down to the penny, to make it.
Today Alexander makes $8.05 an hour, which makes it hard to get by. “We have to kind of be like mathematicians,” he said. “You have to really count for every cent, almost down to the penny, to make it.” He struggles to afford rent alongside the child support he pays to support his daughter. “At times it becomes unbearable,” he added.
He thinks the strikes will help make a difference. “Before the strikes, nobody was hearing our voice,” he said. “This gives us a voice, gives us something to show it and let people know this is serious.”
Some critics of the movement respond to calls for higher wages in the fast food industry by saying that workers should just find a different job that pays better. But Alexander has tried. “Every time I go and look for other jobs, it seems like they’re the only ones that are hiring,” he said. Data shows that a growing share of people in minimum-wage work don’t get a chance to move on to a better job a year or even three later.
“Taco Bell is a multibillion company,” he said. “It’s not like you’re working for some small company… They’re not taking pride or showing any effort in their workers.”
This won’t be the first strike for Tanzi Dorough, a nearly two-year employee of Burger King in Houston, Texas, who first went on strike last year. And it probably won’t be her last. “I’m going to go every year as long as it takes until we get $15,” she said. With a chuckle, she added, “I’m always ready to say whatever I got to say.”
Dorough says her take-home pay amounts to $200 every two weeks, although her hours vary week to week and aren’t always as many as she needs to get by. That makes things tough as a single mother of three young children. “It’s not enough for me to pay my rent or send my child to school,” she said. “It’s hardly enough for me to even buy food.” A $15 minimum wage, on the other hand, would change the picture. “That’d really help me out a lot towards the kids and towards my rent, utility bills,” she said.
Many low-wage workers are in Dorough’s boat. Critics also like to say that minimum wage jobs are meant for teenagers looking for an entry into the labor market. Yet their average age is 36 and more than a quarter are supporting children like Dorough.
I’m not looking for nothing extraordinary, just looking for a little more help.
Tuesday’s strike will be one of many for veteran Kevin Burgons, who’s been working at a Dunkin Donuts in Hartford, Connecticut for ten years. He’s lost track, but he estimates he’s been on strike at least eight times since he got involved with the Fight for 15 movement three years ago. In that time, he’s secured two 50-cent raises, which he chalks up to his activism. “If I hadn’t been involved in the movement, I wouldn’t have gotten those raises,” he said. “Fifty cents don’t sound like much, but it helps out, every cent matters.”
Even so, he still lives paycheck-to-paycheck. But a $15 wage would give him some room to breathe. “I would have a little extra money to pay my bills on time, maybe go shopping, get a new car,” he said. “I’m not looking for nothing extraordinary, just looking for a little more help.”
He was also inspired to get involved with the strikes after seeing what happened in New York, especially after seeing that fast food workers in the state just secured a $15 minimum wage increase. “It just made me think, ‘Hmm, I’m worth more than what I’m getting paid,’” he said. He also pointed to the passage of $15 minimum wages in Los Angeles and San Francisco as proof that the movement is working. “Our voices are being heard. They’re being heard loud and clear,” he said.