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Area fast-food workers hit the pavement again in quest for higher wages, more respect

Fast-food workers demonstrate for higher wages as part of a national effort.
Jo Mannies | St. Louis Beacon | 2013
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Fast-food workers demonstrate for higher wages as part of a national effort.

This article originally appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, July 29, 2013: Just as she did in May, Shermale Humphrey was on the picket line at noon Monday to protest the low wages and few benefits that she and others receive as they flip hamburgers and serve customers at the region's fast-food restaurants.

"We don't make enough. No benefits, nothing,'' said Humphrey, 20, outside the McDonald's restaurant in the 4400 block of South Broadway in St. Louis.  Along with a sister who also is a fast-food worker, Humphrey supports her mother and several siblings.

But what has prompted Humphrey to stay involved is the fact that she's seen progress since the last region-wide series of fast-food protests on May 8 and 9.  Her pay has gone up a dime an hour.

For some of her colleagues in the picket line, that's not enough. Shouted the  protesters: "We want change, and we don't mean pennies!"

The St. Louis area is one of seven places around the country this week where activists in the effort to improve wages and conditions for fast-food workers are conducting another two-day, targeted walkout.

Local organizers say they expect hundreds of local fast-food employees to leave their posts temporarily Monday and Tuesday to join the protests planned for outside the restaurants.

Some of the targeted restaurants are the same ones that generated picket lines during the first two-day protest held in early May.

But this time, there should be a difference. "Expect to see more workers, and more stores,'' said Martin Rafanan, community director for STL735, the coalition behind the local protests.

About 50 local fast-food restaurants are targeted for protests throughout the region, with the two-day walkouts ending in a rally and march Tuesday afternoon in downtown St. Louis.

Similar walkouts are planned this week in New York City, Chicago, Detroit, Milwaukee, Kansas City and Flint, organizers said.

And more are planned in the coming months, said Rafanan.

The effort centers on a campaign to raise fast-food wages to at least $15 an hour and “the right to form a union without retaliation and the end to unfair labor practices.”

Many fast-food workers now earn at or near the state’s minimum wage of $7.35 an hour.

Among Monday's slogans shouted by picketers: "Hey, hey, ho, ho, poverty wages have got to go!"

The local arm of the campaign, dubbed “STL Can’t Survive on $7.35,” has attracted support from several labor unions, religious groups and progressive organizations. In some cities, sympathetic members of Congress are expected to participate or show their support, organizers said.

U.S. Rep. Hank Johnson, D-Ga., joined Monday's rally in St. Louis, telling picketers that the issue is fairness.

Top fast-food executives are receiving multi-million-dollar salaries, he said, while the workers who have created the wealth are collecting little. Johnson contended that corporate resistance to paying fair wages is why the federal government had to set up a minimum wage decades ago -- and why that wage needs to be increased.

The federal minimum wage is currently $7.25 an hour, while Missouri's wage is a dime more, as a result of a ballot initiative approved by voters in 2006.

Locally, activists say the targeted restaurants include the chains of McDonald’s, Wendy’s, Burger King, White Castle, Jimmy John’s, Papa John’s, Domino’s, Arby’s, Hardee’s and Jack in the Box.

After the May actions, Rafanan said about 10 workers faced reprisals or punishments from their employers, but all "were resolved in the workers' favor, with the help of community allies." 

Management also was replaced at one Jimmy John's restaurant in south St. Louis, because of the publicity generated by one manager's controversial disciplinary actions, such as forcing workers to wear disparaging signs.

"Community support is important," Rafanan said.

Jo Mannies has been covering Missouri politics and government for almost four decades, much of that time as a reporter and columnist at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. She was the first woman to cover St. Louis City Hall, was the newspaper’s second woman sportswriter in its history, and spent four years in the Post-Dispatch Washington Bureau. She joined the St. Louis Beacon in 2009. She has won several local, regional and national awards, and has covered every president since Jimmy Carter. She scared fellow first-graders in the late 1950s when she showed them how close Alaska was to Russia and met Richard M. Nixon when she was in high school. She graduated from Valparaiso University in northwest Indiana, and was the daughter of a high school basketball coach. She is married and has two grown children, both lawyers. She’s a history and movie buff, cultivates a massive flower garden, and bakes banana bread regularly for her colleagues.

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