State's fast food workers demand fair wages as part of a growing movement

BY
NEWS ASSIGNMENT EDITOR

Ben Hunter of Wilmington works hard and shows up on time to his position at Burger King every day but is unable to put food on the table, he said.

“I’m not looking for a handout,” Hunter said. “I am looking for a living wage.”

Hunter’s frustrations are representative of a growing movement within the state and on a national level known as the “Fight for Fifteen,” which aims to raise the wages of fast food workers to $15 an hour and allow for a safe formation of unions.

In response to the testimonies of Hunter and others Tuesday night at New Castle County’s council meeting, the council passed a resolution condemning several major fast food corporations, including Burger King, for the low wages paid to their workers. The council is one of many groups in Delaware taking action against the practice known as “wage theft.”

fastfoodphoto
Courtesy of delawareada.org
Workers protest outside of a Wendy’s restaurant in Wilmington. Many fast food workers cannot afford basics such as groceries, rent and transportation.

Daisy Cruz, the Mid-Atlantic director of the 32BJ Service Employees International Union (32BJ SEIU), represents over 145,000 low-wage service workers, including 10,000 in the Delaware and Philadelphia areas. Her organization has kept a close eye on the “Fight for Fifteen” movement since its inception, she said.

It has grown exponentially since the strikes first started in November 2012, spreading to more than 130 cities in December, Cruz said.

“There has been an incredible snowball effect,” Cruz said. “The fast food worker movement has ignited a growing, necessary conversation around income inequality and has even helped spur major legislative achievements.”

32BJ SEIU has collaborated with Americans for Democratic Action (ADA) and a few other organizations to form Delaware Fast Food Forward, which addresses these issues specifically in the state, she said.

Ezra Temko, the Delaware organizer for ADA, said the movement came to the state this past summer when Wilmington workers participated in the nationwide strike that took place on Aug. 29. ADA was not formally associated with the first strike but since then has become directly involved with the workers’ efforts, Temko said.

“We need to show solidarity for these fast food workers,” Temko said. “They need community support. There are misconceptions about them often being teenagers or it being supplemental income, but there are a lot of adults, particularly women and minorities, doing this to take care of their families, and they cannot do that with low wages, few hours and no benefits.”

The average wage for a Delaware fast food worker has recently increased to $8.75 an hour, but even that is nowhere near enough to support a family of four, he said.

State Rep. John Kowalko of district 25 said he sees the “Fight for Fifteen” movement as both a moral and economic battle.

“Morally, paying fast food workers more is the right thing to do,” Kowalko said. “But for those who don’t think the government should be involved in a societal or moral issue, they should acknowledge that billions and billions of dollars of their money is being used to support people who are working 40 to 60 hours a week.”

Both Kowalko and Temko cited a recent report from University of California-Berkeley that said low-wage fast food jobs cost American taxpayers $7 billion each year.

“As far as I’m concerned, we are going in the wrong direction economically as long as we allow already profiting corporations to place the burden of society’s obligations on the government by underpaying people for their labor,” Kowalko said. “More sustainable economic development comes from treating people fairly.”

Despite Tuesday’s victory, Delaware Fast Food Forward will continue its fight to raise awareness of this cause in the state.

There will be an event Thursday at 1 p.m. outside the McDonald’s in Wilmington, Temko said. Community leaders and fast food workers will be speaking out about wage theft, he said.

“We may do something symbolic, like Ronald McDonald being arrested or something,” Temko said.

Aside from events like these, Cruz said workers are also looking for more legislative change modeled after New Castle County council’s resolution. Workers are calling on Wilmington’s city council to pass something similar, she said.

“This movement is very important and needs to keep growing,” Temko said. “It is about empowering workers and giving them a voice when in the workplace they are not always treated with such respect and dignity. They did not feel like their voices mattered.”

Even though he feels there is a long way to go, he and the rest of ADA and Delaware Fast Food Forward will continue working until the movement reaches its goals, he said. Kowalko says it is only fair that things improve for fast food workers.

“The work they are doing, this is not even just the American way, it’s the human way,” Kowalko said. “It’s the honest way that demands we compensate people fairly for the work they do.”

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