As a group of about two dozen demonstrators chanted and waved signs reading “America can't survive on $7.25” outside a McDonald's today, a young bro in a baseball cap walked toward them with a rather purposeful gait.
“Is this a gay rights thing, or for minimum wage?” he shouted. “If you don't want minimum wage, go to school.” He walked briskly back to his SUV and drove off.
That was at least part of the local reaction to a fast food workers strike calling for a higher minimum wage that took place in cities throughout the nation today. Demonstrators in Charleston rallied outside a McDonald's franchise on Savannah Highway this afternoon.
“Hold the burgers, hold the fries, we can't survive on $7.25,” they chanted in the parking lot as cars and trucks drove past intermittently honking horns and hollering out windows. Some of the demonstrators likened working for the nation's minimum wage as a form slavery. Many of the crowd wore shirts reading “SC Raise Up.” It wasn't clear how many workers were actually striking or merely supporting the effort.
Two middle-aged women wearing Burger King uniforms had just gotten off a shift. Maria, a cook who didn't want to give her last name, makes minimum wage, and her manager, Lisa, makes $9.50 an hour. Both have to work two jobs to pay the bills, they said.
“$7.25? Ain't nobody can live that like,” Maria said. Many of the demonstrators called for a nationwide raise of the minimum wage to $15 dollars an hour. “I make $7.25, and I take crap. I take the trash out. I have to do everything in there, and I do lunch on top of that. I wake up at five in the morning every morning. I work two jobs.”
One of the supporters was Thomas Dixon, a community organizer, civil rights activist, and pastor at the Summerville Christian Fellowship. He was there, he said, because he doesn’t think $7.25 is a living wage in the United States. He believes actions like the one he was taking part in today can bring about change, though it’s often tough.
“It's worked in the past. One of the difficulties that we have today is getting the power of the people assembled together,” he said. “The more people that we get on board the more effective the action. We live in a society that everybody waits on everybody else to do something and apathy has set in very much.”
Even those who are directly affected a lot of times don't want to come out and participate, he said, because they have bills to pay and fear losing their job. “You're not making enough money to live anyway,” he said.
Inside the dining room, Mary Homann, a waitress at a downtown hotel restaurant, was eating a sandwich and watching the demonstrators through the glass.
She raised an eyebrow when she heard the $15-dollar-per-hour figure.
“Phew,” she said. “That's higher than the heavy equipment operators make.” And she'd know, she said, because her husband is a temporary worker at the Port of Charleston. While curious about the demonstrators' message, she doubted anything they could say would likely change her consumption habits. And, she felt, what they were doing is probably unlikely to lead to significant change.
“Not with Obama in office,” she said. “I mean here he is talking about now wanting to increase the minimum wage for everybody, and that's just to cover his butt so everybody can afford his Obamacare that nobody can buy anyway. That's my opinion.”
For her part, she'd like to see a minimum wage higher than $7.25.
“I wish they would raise it for everybody, it'd make the world a lot easier,” she said, adding that she would support Obama's plan to raise it. “If it works...,” she trailed off as a handful of demonstrators walked into the restaurant chanting, one with a bullhorn. “My baby needs clothes,” one of them yelled.
Outside the McDonald’s, Bob Stonerock, a local pediatric dentist, clutched a bag of two filet-o-fish sandwiches. He paused to watch the demonstrators and share his thoughts about it. He'd been following news of the fast food strike, he said, and actually worked in fast food for years when he was in high school and college. He appreciated their right to ask for a wage they think is comparable to the job they're performing.
In the meantime, the protestors are unlikely to change how frequently Stonerock visits fast food restaurants. “It’s between the restaurant and the employees,” he said.
For him at least, the protests underscore a larger American problem about well-paying industrial work being replaced by fast food wages.
“Unfortunately now it’s become a mainstream job. It’s just the way of America,” he said. “We don’t have the manufacturing we used to have … we’re not a manufacturing country anymore and unless we get back to doing something in that level we’re in trouble.”