Fast food workers rally for higher wages

Published: Feb. 12, 2018 at 11:48 AM CST|Updated: Feb. 12, 2018 at 5:51 PM CST
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MEMPHIS, TN (WMC) - Memphis workers making less than $15 per hour protested for a higher minimum wage Monday.

Workers walked out of McDonald's at 2073 Union Avenue and met others outside.

The main goal of the protest is to fight for $15 an hour--what they call a living wage. They are also asking for more union rights.

Some employers oppose the wage increase. They said higher wages mean a higher cost of business, which will lead to an increase in costs to customers.

The protests come 50 years to the day that Memphis sanitation workers went on strike for higher wages and union rights after two workers, Echol Cole and Robert Walker, were crushed by a trash compactor.

"It's something that should be important to everyone," Robin Curtis said. "The amount of money that you make per hour--it should be very important to everyone, because everyone has a life. Everyone has things that they have to do."

Some protesters, like Curtis who works as a cook and cashier at Burger King, walked out of their restaurants while on the clock to join the protest.

Curtis said she's protesting for her two young daughters, ages 1 and 7.

"Eight dollars isn't even it," Curtis said. "I mean I'm making their ages basically together."

Walking the same route that sanitation strikers walked in 1968, Memphis fast food workers said they're inspired by the rallying cry of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s Poor People Campaign.

"We're showing solidarity because we're fighting for the same," Fight for 15 organizer Ashley Cathey said. "We're fighting for job safety, we're fighting for a union as a fast food worker. Back then the sanitation workers only made $2 and some change."

"We're still doing marches to be paid correctly," Curtis said. "I mean I don't understand it, I don't get it."

Organizers from Fight for 15 said what they are demanding is similar to what the sanitation workers demanded in 1968.

"If you do the math now with the minimum wage it's supposed to be $15," Cathey said. "So $15 won't make us rich, it will just give us a stepping stone."

The wages protesters are asking for is what University of Memphis Associate Professor Elena Delavega said is the bare minimum needed to survive.

"Wages are very, very low," Delavega said.

Delavega works with the Benjamin L Hooks Institute for Social Change. She said there is a way to raise minimum wage without hurting local businesses.

"If we had a mechanism for increasing the minimum wage every year with the cost of living that would be a lot easier on everybody, a lot easier on businesses a lot easier on the people," Delavega said.

Delavega also said employment in Memphis has gone up, but it doesn't mean poverty will go down unless wages change.

"Though people are working, it's not enough to bring people out of poverty," Delavega said.

City of Memphis responded to the protests Monday afternoon, saying:

We respect the First Amendment rights of demonstrators to protest in a safe and peaceful manner and to use Civic Center Plaza to call attention to a cause in the same tradition as 1968 sanitation workers. Fight for 15 lawfully applied for and received a permit for this demonstration.

In Tennessee, cities are not allowed to enact a local minimum wage that's different than the statewide minimum wage. We do, though, follow a living wage ordinance based on federal guidelines. Mayor Jim Strickland is in favor of a reasonable increase in the minimum wage. Since the beginning of his tenure, the City has conducted a yearly compensation study for its employees, and we work to make salary adjustments based on our budget. The City employs 6,659 full time employees. Of that number, 351 (roughly 5 percent) make less than $15 per hour. No City employee makes less than $12 per hour.

City government recognizes there is an economic divide— not just in Memphis, but globally. We will continue to work to compensate our employees fairly, and to shrink the economic divide by extending contract opportunities to minority-owned businesses.

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