by Paul Bowers
Charleston-area fast-food workers walked off from their jobs and protested for higher wages today at two separate events in North Charleston. Unlike at a previous fast-food strike in downtown Charleston, the protesters did not block traffic. There were, however, several new faces in the crowd, and some returning protesters said they had been recruiting protesters from their workplaces.
The two events were coordinated with help from the Southern Workers Organizing Committee, a group that has organized fast-food protests across the Southeast under the catchphrase Raise Up For $15 and that has financial backing from the powerhouse Service Employees International Union. Today marks the two-year anniversary of a movement that calls itself Fight for $15, which seeks a $15-an-hour minimum wage and labor organizing rights for fast-food workers. According to a Reuters report, similar protests took place in about 190 cities around the United States today.
Today's first protest took place at 6:30 a.m. in front of a Hardee's on Ashley Phosphate Road. The second protest started at noon behind the Chick-fil-A on Centre Pointe Drive near the Tanger Outlets. Protesters arrived in 15-passenger vans, marched through the nearby Walmart parking lot, and then crossed the street to chant slogans on a sidewalk in front of a Burger King. Dozens of workers turned out for the protest event, a marked contrast to an earlier protest rally in July that drew more supporters than actual fast-food workers.
Demetria Bullock, a mother of two and a cashier at a Checkers on Dorchester Road, said she started at the restaurant five years ago making $7.50 an hour. Now, she said, she makes $8 an hour. She said she was scheduled to work today, but she walked off. "I'll have a job when I get back," she said.
Bullock was joined by at least one other worker from the same restaurant. She said she brought up the idea of joining the strike to some other coworkers, but many were on the fence about it. "They're kind of iffy. They want to do it, but then they don't know," Bullock said.
Beth Schaffer, a McDonald's employee who recently transferred from a location in Goose Creek to one in downtown Charleston, says she was invited to the protest by her sister, who works at a Dollar Tree and has been involved in previous events with Raise Up for $15. Schaffer said she would like to go to cosmetology school, but she can't afford tuition while making $7.25 an hour.
"Everything's going up. Rent's going up, electricity's going up, I can't go to school with student loans, and I can't live off of $7.25 an hour," Schaffer said.
According to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Living Wage Calculator, the nationwide minimum wage of $7.25 per hour is not sufficient to provide the basic needs of most families. The tool calculates a living wage for every county based on local cost-of-living factors including food, childcare, housing, and transportation. In Charleston County, the living wage for a single adult is $9.74 an hour. For a single adult with one child, the living wage is $18.27.
There were a few familiar faces in the crowd who appeared at the last local strike on Sept. 4, which all but shut down traffic on the busy Crosstown Expressway in downtown Charleston for about an hour. One was Cherri Delesline, who once again led chants over a megaphone. Delesline previously worked at the McDonald's on West Montague Avenue in North Charleston, but she said today that she is no longer employed at the restaurant. According to a spokesperson for the Southern Workers Organizing Committee, Delesline is now working as a labor organizer for the group.
When asked how she is making ends meet after leaving her job, Delesline replied:
"I make ends meet when I've got people out here like this that support me. That's what supports me. My whole union family, my Raise Up family, they are what makes my ends meet."