Hold the Burgers, Hold the Fries! Make our Wages Super-Sized! | Civil Eats

Hold the Burgers, Hold the Fries! Make our Wages Super-Sized!

Morris Cornley didn’t show up for his job at Jimmy John’s Gourmet Sandwiches today. Instead, the 57-year-old veteran spent the day traveling between fast food franchises throughout Kansas City as part of a week of action that has been called the “largest fast food worker mobilization in U.S. history.” The crowds today will not be nearly as big as they were in New York on Monday. But that’s part of what makes it seem so necessary to folks like Cornley.

“People are excited, jubilated. They’re walking around talking about standing up for Kansas City,” he says. Cornley and others workers his age are bolstered by memories of the now-iconic 1968 sanitation workers strike in Memphis, where Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke for the last time in support of a living wage and fair conditions. “They had many of the same struggles we do,” he says.

Cornley returned from Iraq a few years ago and got hired driving trucks. Then, when he was laid off two years ago, a fast food job was all he could find. He now works 32-40 hours a week, but is considered a part-time employee, even on weeks when his hours exceed 40. “I feel like the American Dream is slipping by,” he says.

While striking is always a risk, it’s one worth taking–in part because it could mean that Cornley can afford to eat a little better. As a diabetic, his wages make it tough to put any food on the table at all, let alone the fruits, vegetables, and whole grains his doctor recommends. “It’s easier to buy a 99 cent hot dog than it is to buy a bag of oranges. It’s a catch 22,” he says.

At this point Cornley supports his adopted daughter on a mere $7.35 an hour. But, like the other workers striking this week–in New York, Chicago, Detroit, Flint, St. Louis, and Milwaukee–he’s asking his employers for $15 dollars an hour and the right to form a union.

This may seem like a big leap, but according to a recent study from University of Kansas, such a shift would be possible at McDonald’s for just 68 cents $ 1.28 more per Big Mac [See Huffpo’s correction to the original math]. Currently only 17.1 percent of the company revenue goes to pay their 500,000 U.S. employees.

As Cornley sees it: “That increase would go back into the economy. We want to be able to take our families to dinner too.”

As the week unfolds and the initial media buzz from the New York’s sizable first-day protest begins to wear off, workers in cities with much less visibility are stepping up to be heard, with support from groups like the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) and Fast Food Forward. And for good reason.

As Jordan Weismann pointed out in the Atlantic earlier this month, fast food jobs are supporting more and more families, as they’ve gradually begun replacing millions of middle-income jobs in fields like construction and manufacturing that were lost in the last recession. “The food services industry now accounts for 7.6 percent of all jobs, up from about 7 percent pre-recession, and about 6.2 percent around 2000,” he wrote.

In Detroit, where the workers will be marching against a backdrop of recently declared bankruptcy–and the owner of at least one popular fast food franchise owes the city one million in back taxes–workers’ demands may sound especially poignant.

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“There are 53,000 fast food workers here averaging around seven to eight dollars an hour,” estimates W.J. Rideout, a civil rights activist and pastor with Detroit’s All God’s People Church, who will be marching with fast food workers in Detroit on Wednesday morning.

And, like Conley, those affected rarely conform to popular stereotypes about burger-slinging. “It’s not true that only high school students work in fast food joints. Nor are these temporary jobs for many people,” says Rideout.

Of course, that doesn’t mean young people aren’t playing an important role in the strike. Take 20-year-old Claudette Wilson. She’s been working for Burger King since her junior year in high school–first in Detroit and then in Lansing, where she attended community college.

Wilson resents he use of the term “unskilled” in relation to what she does, and recalls several times when she’s been left alone to work “the board” assembling Whoppers during a rush. Or the times when she’s worked more than an eight-hour shift just to watch the hours get “rolled over” into another shift, rather than add up to overtime.

“Since I know this isn’t going to be my life, I don’t really let it get me down,” says Wilson, who has plans to continue school for audio production. “But I know I’m lucky. Some people have records, and can’t get other work. A lot of the older folks feel stuck.”

When she heard about the opportunity to help organize her co-workers for another strike back in May, Wilson says she, “jumped on it” and she has been making calls, doing the “foot work and the mouth-work” for the last several weeks in preparation for tomorrow’s strike.

“I want to speak for the people,” she adds, unabashedly. “Not everyone in Detroit knows this strike is going on. But after this week, they won’t forget.”

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Featured image: Photo of striking workers in New York on Monday by Annette Berhardt of the National Employment Law Project.

57-year-old Jimmie Johns worker Morris Cornley joined the strike on Tuesday.

Claudette Wilson, 20, has been working for Burger King since her junior year in high school. (Photo courtesy of the SEIU)

Twilight Greenaway is Civil Eats' senior editor and former managing editor. Her articles about food and farming have appeared in The New York Times, NPR.org, The Guardian, Food and Wine, Gastronomica, and Grist, among other. See more at TwilightGreenaway.com. Follow her on Twitter. Read more >

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