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Fast-Food Nation

Memphis fast-food workers join nationwide fight for living wage.

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Fifty years after Dr. Martin Luther King led the March on Washington to highlight the need for all Americans to share a decent standard of living, many service workers are still fighting for a living wage.

Fast-food workers and community activists gathered at the AFSCME Local 1733 Union Hall downtown last week before leading a march to the National Civil Rights Museum protesting what they claim are unfair working conditions in service industry jobs.

Chants of "We can't survive on $7.25" were heard in between speakers making arguments for not only a pay increase from minimum wage to $15 but also the right to unionize without unfair retaliation from upper-level management. 

The nationwide fast-food strike took place the day after the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, which called for a minimum wage of $2 per hour. Adjusted for inflation, that would equal $15.26 an hour today.

According to CNN, the median pay for fast-food workers across the country is just more than $9 an hour or about $18,500 a year. That's roughly $4,500 lower than the U.S. Census Bureau's poverty income threshold of $23,000 for a family of four.

Rev. Herbert Lester, chairman of the Workers Interfaith Network, said one of the most common misconceptions of the fast-food industry is that the jobs are stepping stones and not designed for long-term employment.

"The notion that these are entry-level jobs just isn't true, even though it's the dominant perception. The average age of a fast-food worker in Memphis is 29, and over one-fourth of all fast-food workers have children," Lester said.

Fast food is a $200 billion-a-year industry, yet many service workers across the country earn minimum wage or just above and are forced to rely on public assistance programs to provide for their families. Nationally, the median wage for cooks, cashiers, and crew at fast-food restaurants is $8.94 an hour.

Anthony Cathey has worked at the McDonald's at 905 Union for more than five years and still gets paid $7.40 an hour, 25 cents less than the cost of one Big Mac combo meal.

"They pay us less than one Big Mac meal an hour. How many Big Mac meals are they selling in an hour? At least 30," Cathey said. "McDonald's makes enough to pay me for eight hours of work in about 30 minutes, just off of one combo. If they raised one of their meals 10 cents, I think it would be enough to pay us what we need.

"We're asking for $15 [per hour] and a union because we want health-care benefits, paid vacations, and sick days. No one has helped us get what we want so far, so we decided to come out and do this the right way," Cathey added.

Lester said that even though this is the first step in a long fight for workers' rights and wage increases in service-level jobs, he hopes that the strike brought some overdue attention to the plight of fast-food workers.

"We will continue to shed light on these topics and hopefully inspire workers in other industries to stand up for their rights," Lester said. "We aren't going to stop until common needs are met across the board and a fair wage for a fair day's work becomes the law of the land."

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