About 50 Triangle fast-food workers joined a nationwide strike Thursday, rallying outside several chain restaurants in Raleigh and Durham for a $15-an-hour wage.
Organized largely through social media and word of mouth, the walkout took place in about 60 cities, forcing restaurants in some locations to shut down without enough staff. It was the largest protest yet in the movement for higher wages and the right to unionize.
Fast-food restaurants locally were operating normally Thursday, though a targeted Taco Bell in Charlotte closed its dining room. Triangle workers started the morning in Durham, protesting at Burger King and McDonald’s restaurants where some of the strikers work. By lunchtime, the protest shifted to Raleigh, where the picketing continued in front of a Little Caesars Pizza on Capital Boulevard.
“Cancel the burgers, cancel the fries, make our wages supersize,” the group chanted.
Brandi Pegram said she was eager to wave a sign in front of the downtown Durham McDonald’s where she has worked for five years. She said she still makes the minimum wage: $7.25 an hour.
“I’m getting ready to have a baby, and it’s hard for me to survive,” she said, adding that she was scheduled to work Thursday but joined the picket line instead. “It was only going to be $50 anyway.”
Other fast-food workers said their part-time hours and low pay make them reliant on government assistance. Ladondre Pretty, who works at the Raleigh Little Caesars, said he has five kids and relies on his wife’s food stamps to survive.
“My checks are not even $200 every two weeks,” he said, adding that he wasn’t given credit for eight years of experience at a Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurant. The pizza manager, he says, told him, “No, we’ve got to start you off at $7.25 an hour.”
Pretty, who sometimes works only 13 hours a week, said his teenage son’s part-time movie theater job brings home more money. Pretty wasn’t exactly on strike Thursday; he says he was left off the schedule all week after calling in sick Saturday.
Michael Aoun owns five Triangle Little Caesars stores, including the site of the protest. He says he is supportive of the protesters and wanted to offer them free pizza, but the event moved on before he arrived. He’s in favor of a higher minimum wage – such as President Barack Obama’s call for $9 an hour – but said the strikers’ demands aren’t realistic.
“We operate on a very slim margin, especially when the public is asking for the very lowest price,” he said. “I cannot sell the lowest price pizza and pay people $15 an hour. If the public is willing to accept paying more for their food, I’m very, very happy to pay more.”
North Carolina’s minimum wage is the same as the federal minium. The last time it was raised was in 2009, when it went from $6.55 to $7.25.
Aoun said most of his workers are paid $8 or $9 per hour, and some are full-time. Earlier published claims from a Little Caesars worker who says employees clock out and keep working, he said, are false. His restaurants hire former prison inmates and people without a diploma.
“We employ so many people in neighborhoods where these people would never have a chance to have a job,” he said, adding that the protests “are making us look like the enemy.”
Allan Freyer, an economic policy analyst at the left-leaning N.C. Budget and Tax Center, argues that higher pay doesn’t lead to significant price hikes. “They go up a couple cents per hamburger,” he said.
Some of Thursday’s anger stems from the changing face of the fast-food industry. The protesters aren’t teenagers or students seeking extra income; many are in their 30s or 40s and supporting families. Data from the Economic Policy Institute show the average age of workers making less than $10 an hour is 35.
“When the economic downturn hit, a lot of folks lost a lot of jobs, and these jobs were available,” Freyer said.
The Rev. William Barber II, the N.C. NAACP president, made a similar point, speaking after a march Thursday afternoon at the Kentucky Fried Chicken on New Bern Avenue.
“The fastest growing jobs in the United States are the lowest paid,” he said. “That ain’t right.”
It’s rare for fast-food workers to go on strike, especially in states like North Carolina that limit unions. Fast-food workers who take part in strikes are generally protected from being fired or having employers retaliate against them. Federal labor law gives all workers the right to engage in “protected concerted activities” to complain about wages, working conditions or other terms of employment.
Pegram, the Durham McDonald’s worker, hopes she’ll still have a job Friday. “I’m going in there to work at 7 a.m. with my head held high,” she said, adding that if wages don’t change soon, “I’ll come back out here and do it again.”
But Aoun said that any of his workers who didn’t show up for a scheduled shift Thursday could be fired. Employees are free to protest on their day off, but the Little Caesars policy is firm: “No show, no call, no job.” The Associated Press contributed to this report.