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Two-day protests at area fast-food restaurants part of national labor push

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: A work stoppage that began Wednesday morning with four employees at a Jimmy John’s in south St. Louis is slated to spread to at least two dozen other fast-food restaurants on Thursday, organizers say, as part of a national push to unionize fast-food workers and increase the minimum wage.

Organizers expect at least 100 area fast-food employees to participate in the strike, which is supposed to last through Thursday – with workers back on the job by Friday.

The additional targeted fast-food outlets involve the Domino’s, Hardees and Wendy’s chains, activists say.

In a statement, a group called the St. Louis Organizing Committee said a coalition of labor organizations, clergy and community groups seek “to put money back in the pockets of the 36,000 men and women who work hard in the city’s fast food restaurants, but still can’t afford basic necessities like food, clothing, and rent.”

“The self-sufficiency standard for an adult with one child living in St. Louis County is $14.84 per hour working full time,” the group said. “If workers were paid more, they’d spend more, helping to get St. Louis’ economy moving again.”

A rally is slated for Thursday afternoon in University City after the walkouts at the various fast-food restaurants, in the city and St. Louis County, are scheduled to be well underway.

“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," in a statement.
“Increasingly, fast food jobs are the only options for St. Louisans, but these workers can’t even afford to pay for rent, food and bus fare. If the workers earned more, fast-food workers would spend that money at local businesses here in St. Louis and help lift our economy.” (End update)

The second targeted restaurant on Wednesday was a McDonald’s in Ferguson, where several dozen fast-food workers from around the region joined labor activists for an afternoon protest outside the restaurant along West Florissant.

Participants shouted “Can’t survive on $7.35!’’ -- a reference to Missouri’s current hourly minimum wage. The national minimum wage now is 10 cents lower, at $7.25 an hour.

“I’m striking because $7.35 is not enough to survive,’’ said Shermale Humphrey, 20, who said she has worked at the Ferguson McDonald’s for almost two years. She helps support several relatives, including her mother.

Humphrey was among several protesters who noted that most fast-food restaurants don’t provide health insurance or other benefits for their employees.

Humphrey added, “I don’t think I’ll lose my job for standing up for what’s right.”

Workers and management inside the Ferguson restaurant declined to comment. Representatives from several unions had entered the restaurant to deliver papers that they said underscored that federal law allows the workers to strike for 24 hours without retaliation. The representatives were asked to leave and not to leave behind any documents.

The rally participants included Brenda Holloway, who said she had worked for more than four years at the Jimmy John’s, 1631 South Broadway. Workers had issued a news release earlier Wednesday accusing the Jimmy John’s management of mistreatment.

Holloway said four of the restaurant’s workers were participating in the strike, which is slated to end late Thursday. She said others had signed up to join the protest as well but had backed out.

“They got afraid. They chickened out,’’ she said.

The local workers are getting encouragement from labor organizers from around the country, including New York and Chicago, where several walkouts have been held at fast-foot outlets.

Organizers say their aim is to push for a $15-an-hour wage for fast-food workers and others who hold low wage jobs, and to lobby for unionizing workers "without retaliation."

But walkout participant Alexius Mason, who works at the Ferguson McDonald's, says she'd be happy if she could earn at least $9 an hour. At least that would be an improvement, she said.

Jo Mannies is a freelance journalist and former political reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.