Could you survive on $7.25 an hour? That’s $15,000 a year to afford your car insurance, health insurance, utilities, and rent—not to mention groceries, gas, and clothes. Could you not only survive, but make a good life? Neither can 66,000 North Carolinians in the fast food industry. They work fulltime, often have completed High School, and yet make so little money that they have to turn to the state government for food stamps and Medicaid.
Last Thursday morning, hundreds of fast food workers in cities across the nation staged the second strike this year to demand $15 per hour and the right to form a union. With help from employees in Raleigh, Durham, and Charlotte, the strike became the largest in the history of the fast food industry.
It’s a wonder why history wasn’t made sooner. Economist Robert Reich says that if minimum wage had kept pace with inflation, the federal minimum wage would now amount to $10.50 an hour. If strikers get their wish, minimum wage workers will earn $31,000 a year. But fast food chains plan to put up a fight: McDonald’s has claimed that increasing minimum wage would force an increase in meal prices. Companies like Costco and Trader Joe’s tell a different story.
Entry-level employees at Trader Joe’s make $40,000 a year. They also stick around longer and work harder—and its executives still make bank. “We need higher wages at and near the bottom, so more [Americans] can join the middle class and keep the economy going,” says Reich. $31,000 a year would do the trick. Pimply teenagers flipping burgers for mall money no longer make up the majority of minimum wage earners. In fact, they make up less than one-third; many adults with families were forced into low-paying jobs as companies downsized during the recession. Now when we talk about increasing the minimum wage, we talk about getting mothers and fathers out of poverty. And when North Carolinians make only $15,000 a year, they officially live in poverty.
The strikes received some high-powered support on Wednesday, when President Barak Obama mentioned fast food workers in his call to raise the federal minimum wage. Unfortunately, the push for higher pay still faces an uphill battle. Organized labor has historically been weak or nonexistent in the South—and most especially in North Carolina. North Carolina has the fewest union members out of any state in the country. That means fast food workers here need all the help they can get.
You can help by supporting local restaurants and corporations that pay their workers a living wage. Thanks to the 2013 Ethical Diner’s Guide, you can see how fast food joints stack up here.