Fast Food Workers Protest for Higher Minimum Wage

Aug 29, 2013

Fast food workers in Seattle and Tacoma demanding higher pay walked off the job Thursday as part of a nationwide strike. Experts say it’s a rare show of labor strength at a time when unions have lost influence.

Workers and community supporters stood outside a Jimmy John’s sandwich shop in downtown Seattle, chanting, “Get up! Strike!” One Metro bus driver raised his fist to show his support as he drove by.

Troy Dennison delivers sandwiches for Jimmy John’s by bike. He says after more than a year, he hasn’t gotten a raise even though he has asked.

“Being paid minimum wage with the promise of I will never get a raise, is not alright,” he said.

Dennison and three of his co-workers said they decided not to show up for work Thursday. But other workers stayed behind the counter inside. Dennison says he tried to get them to join.

“Their biggest issue was that they’re afraid of being fired or have retaliation of some sort,” he said.

“I think it’s a huge deal for organized labor to show this kind of strength, and for low-wage workers to show this kind of strength,” said Jake Rosenfeld, a University of Washington professor who researches unions.

The Service Employees International Union has coordinated these strikes across the country. Rosenfeld thinks one aim may be to unionize the workers—a tough move under our current labor laws. He says a more achievable goal is to put pressure on elected officials.

“We just might see more labor-friendly cities or possibly even a state or two move to raise its minimum wage,” he said.

Rosenfeld says some stores may raise wages on their own. But even workers like Dennison say $15 an hour, the wage they’re calling for, is probably not going to happen anytime soon.

Still, Cristina Rodriguez says it’s really tough to make a living as a fast-food worker. She didn’t show up for her shift at a downtown Subway sandwich shop. She says she’d like to go back to community college, but can’t afford it.

“I live with my mom. She’s a single parent with four kids. One of my sisters is fully disabled, and she can’t get a job. So now I’m going to be stuck paying a $1,500 rent,” she said.  

Rodriguez says her boss at Subway threatened to fire her for walking out. When reached on the phone, the owner, Hasan Zeer, says that was a misunderstanding but he declined to do an interview.

Jimmy John’s did not respond to a request for comment.

Local Small Business Owners Watching Closely

So far, the one-day strikes have targeted big national chains like Wendy’s, Subway, and Jimmy John’s. Owners of local small businesses have been watching closely. Jim Spady, vice president of Dick’s Drive-In, says the Seattle chain’s workers start at $10 per hour instead of minimum wage, and anyone working more than 24 hours a week gets health insurance. Spady says the company also offers up to $22,000 in scholarships to help workers go to school.

“We encourage our employees through our scholarship program and other ways to continue their education, upgrade their skills, and get a better-paying job in another industry,” Spady said. “We have the best wages and benefits in the fast-food industry, but frankly, you’ll make a lot more as a computer programmer at Microsoft.”

Spady says he does not support a $15-per-hour minimum wage. He says restaurants would respond by laying off workers and moving toward more mechanization. The move would also remove job opportunities for inexperienced workers just entering the workforce.