St. Louis Fast-Food Workers On Strike

Terrance Heath

It started in New York City, and last month it happened again in Chicago. Today, the movement for decent wages is taking another big step forward in St. Louis, Mo., where hundreds of fast food workers will rally for better wages.

Fast food workers, most of which are adults with a family to support, simply can’t survive on $7.35 an hour. They don’t make enough to cover basic needs – like food, health care, rent, and transportation. What’s worse, many workers are kept from working full-time so that their employers don’t have to cover their health care. It’s a shame that we let this happen here in St. Louis. And it has to stop.

Paying workers a living wage is the right thing to do – and it will also help fix St. Louis’s economy by putting much needed money into the hands of consumers, who will spend it on the basic things anyone needs to support a family.

If you think workers should be able to earn enough to pay for basic needs like food, shelter, health care, transportation — or if you believe something is fundamentally wrong when a CEO makes 1,795 times a workers salary, while workers don’t earn enough to meet basic needs — then it’s time to stand with the people who stand at the cash register, behind the sales counter, or on the work floor.

If you’re in St. Louis, it’s time to stand with workers on the corner of Delmar Blvd. and Kingland Ave. You can use the link above to RSVP. If you’re not in St. Louis, you can still stand with workers in St. Louis and everywhere, by signing our petition to raise the minimum wage, and signing the St, Louis worker’s petition.

Today’s rally is actually the second day of action in St. Louis. Hundreds of workers walked off the job on Wednesday, in a “surprise strike” that spread from one restaurant to another. It started when worker’s at Jimmy John’s in Soulard went on strike, to protest low wages and humiliating treatment in the workplace.

STL Can't Survive on $7.35

Garth-Rhodes said Jimmy John’s employees were subjected to forms of mental abuse.

“In the past several months, Jimmy John’s managers have required workers to publicly hold signs when they don’t perform up to the sandwich chain’s ‘freaky fast’ job expectations,” Garth-Rhodes said.

One worker was ordered to hold a sign stating, “I made 3 wrong sandwiches today,” Garth-Rhodes said; while another was forced to hold a sign that said, “I was more than 13 seconds in the drive thru.”

St. Louis Jimmy John’s workers also picketed in front of the Soulard location Thursday morning.

Gerneisha Clark has worked at that location for five months and picketed Thursday. She said she is one of the workers subjected to management abuse of power.

“They have a lack of respect for the people that work for them and they just do us any kind of way,” she said. “I’m one of the people that had to hold up a sign as punishment for making a mistake.”

Clark not only had to endure the embarrassment of having to wear a sign, but management actually expected her to “smile for the camera” too.

Clark said it’s time for people to stand up because keeping quiet won’t improve working conditions.

“When he (her manager) had me hold the sign up, he told me don’t be offended while he took a picture with his cell phone,” she said. “He didn’t have to make me hold up a sign. I felt humiliated.”

Miller said this is a selfless act and said she is fearful of being fired.

“When is enough going to be enough,” she asked. “You have to fight for what you believe in, and hopefully there is a great outcome afterward.”

(If this is the way to handle mistakes made on the job, when does Jamie Dimon get his sign, and do we all get to take a picture?)

The campaign, “STL Can’t Survive on $7.35,” is aptly named, because according to the MIT Living Wage Calculator, $7.35 an hour doesn’t even add up to a living wage for a single adult. Add just one child, and it gets worse. A single adult with a child in St. Louis actually needs to earn $17 an hour, just to pay for food, child care, medical care, housing, transportation, and other essentials. A family of four — with 2 adults and 2 children — would need to earn $18 an hour just to afford basic necessities. (Two adults working full-time for minimum wage still can’t make ends meet.)

If raising the minimum wage for St. Louis’ fast food workers from $7.35 to $15 per hour, keep in mind that the typical hourly wage for management in St. Louis currently stands at about $38. Fast food workers in St. Louis currently earn less than quarter of what managers typically earn. At $15 per hour, their wages would still be less than half of what managers earn, but it would a livable wage.

The STL Can’t Survive on $7.35 says that kind of inequality has implications for the entire economy.

The St. Louis strike comes amid growing concern from economists and other experts that the proliferation of low-wage work is hampering the nation’s recovery. In a speech last month, Federal Reserve Board Governor Sarah Bloom Raskin suggested the types of jobs being created are slowing economic growth. “Those jobs will directly affect the fortunes and challenges of households and neighborhoods as well as the course of the recovery,” she said. It also comes as major national companies like McDonald’s and Walmart are facing increasing questions about whether low wages are causing breakdowns in customer service.

“I’ve been at Jack in the Box for four years, cleaning and prepping food and all I get paid is $7.55 without any benefits,” said Anita Gregory, a mother of one, who is expecting her second child in the next few weeks. “I’m tired of having to struggle to survive while working so hard.”

Fast food workers bring $1 billion a year into the cash registers of St. Louis, yet most of these workers earn Missouri’s minimum wage of $7.35, or just above it, and are forced to rely on public assistance programs to provide for their families and gethealthcare for their children. It would take a typical St. Louis fast food worker minimum-wage full-time worker more than 1,300 years to earn as much as the CEO of YUM! Brands— which owns Taco Bell, KFC and Pizza Hut— made in 2012.

The St. Louis Organizing Committee campaign, STL Can’t Survive on $7.35, seeks to put money back in the pockets of the 36,000 men and women who work hard in the St. Louis-area’s fast food chains but still can’t afford basic necessities like food, clothing, and rent. A single adult in St. Louis with a child actuallyneeds to make more than $17 an hour to get by, according to the MIT Living Wage Calculator. If workers were paid more, they’d spend more, helping to get St. Louis’ economy moving again.

“Workers in fast-food jobs are no longer freckle-faced teenagers looking for some summer pocket change,” said the Rev. Martin Rafanan, director of STL $7.35. “Increasingly, fast food jobs are the only options for St. Louisans, but these workers can’t even afford to pay for rent, food and carfare. If they workers earned more, fast food workers would spend that money at local businesses here in St. Louis and help lift our economy.”

After the Chicago strike, I wrote that this movement doesn’t look like it’s going away any time soon. As with New York and Chicago, it won’t stop with St Louis. St. Louis organizers hope their action will spread to other areas, and it most likely will. Just as word spread from one restaurant to another when Jimmy John’s employees walked out, courage may prove to be contagious, and the next strike may coming soon to a lunch counter near you. When it does, join it.

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