Business

Triangle rallies make case for higher minimum wage

Linda Burton of Raleigh demonstrates with hundreds in support of a higher minimum wage during a rally Wednesday, April 15, 2015 at Shaw University in Raleigh.
Linda Burton of Raleigh demonstrates with hundreds in support of a higher minimum wage during a rally Wednesday, April 15, 2015 at Shaw University in Raleigh. tlong@newsobserver.com

Low-wage workers along with university faculty and students in the Triangle joined a nationwide rally Wednesday calling for increasing the minimum wage and the freedom to unionize.

Events in Durham and Raleigh were part of a now 2 1/2 year campaign aimed at pressuring companies and politicians to boost wages for workers in industries such as fast food, child care and cleaning services.

The effort has gained momentum in recent months as several large employers, including Wal-Mart Stores and McDonald’s, have announced plans to boost wages for their workers.

The Triangle events began at 6:15 a.m. in Durham, with about 60 low-wage workers and supporters holding a 90-minute demonstration outside a McDonald’s restaurant.

Besides fast-food employees, the Durham group included child care and home care workers, university faculty members and students.

“This is bigger than fast food now,” said demonstrator George Hargrove of Durham, who said he has worked for McDonald’s for 12 years and makes only $8 an hour as a trainee manager.

Business at the restaurant on Roxboro Street just north of Interstate 85 appeared to go on as usual, though numerous vehicles – including an empty school bus and a city garbage truck – blew horns in support as they went by. In a statement, McDonald’s said Wednesday that it respects the right to “peacefully protest.”

The Durham group chanted “We can’t survive on $7.25” and “We’re fired up! Can’t take it no more!” The “$7.25” referred to the federal minimum wage.

The Durham protest was organized by Raise Up NC, and is part of the national “Fight for $15” campaign that called for a day of strikes and demonstrations for $15 per hour wages and freedom to unionize.

Nationwide, organizers said demonstrations were planned for more than 230 U.S. cities and college campuses on Wednesday, as well as dozens of cities overseas. The campaign began in late 2012 and is being spearheaded by the Service Employees International Union, which represents workers in areas such as home care, child care and cleaning services.

The largest Triangle event Wednesday was held in Raleigh, where hundreds rallied under umbrellas and ponchos outside Shaw University despite a steady rain.

Robin Walker came to Raleigh with several of her co-workers from combined KFC and Taco Bell restaurant in Williamston, about 100 miles east of Raleigh.

Walker said she has earned $7.25 an hour working as a cashier for the fast food chains for two years. After asking for a raise, she received a 10-cent raise in March. Walker said she has three elementary-age kids to provide for and her husband, a felon, has had trouble getting a job and was just recently hired at a fast food restaurant also.

“Right now, I have to budget my money and choose which bill I’m going to pay, whether I’m going to pay the light bill or pay my car payment,” Walker said. “My kids need new clothes. I’m not able to get those. They want to go on trips or to the circus, but I can’t take them for lack of money.”

“If I could get anything, even if it was $9 or $10, I would appreciate it, but I’m striving for $15,” she said.

Recent moves by some retailers and fast-food chains have raised hopes that the fight to raise wages is being heard.

Wal-Mart Stores, the largest private employer in the country, announced in February that it would increase wages for a half-million employees. And McDonald’s said earlier this month it would raise the starting salary to $1 above the local minimum wage, and give workers the ability to accrue paid time off. The move only applies to worker at company-owned stores, which account for about 10 percent of more than 14,300 locations.

Several attendees at the Triangle events Wednesday expressed a desire to stand with workers whose working conditions are not similar to their own.

“I’m here in solidarity,” said Rann Bar-On, a mathematics lecturer at Duke University wearing an orange “Faculty Forward” shirt at the Durham. “Our struggles are the same.”

Bar-On said a faculty group at Duke is demanding that adjunct faculty get paid $15,000 per course they teach, and full faculty benefits.

“Fifteen dollars an hour, $15,000 a course, this is the same message,” he said.

Shilpi Misra, a senior at UNC-Chapel Hill, said she and some fellow students joined the demonstration “because we realized that college is not a safeguard from jobs that are not (paying) a livable wage.

“We just came here to stand in solidarity, make some noise,” she said. “Just to add more voices.” The Associated Press contributed.

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