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Fast-food protest staged at south Charlotte Taco Bell

  • http://media.charlotteobserver.com/smedia/2013/08/29/13/32/jwRmK.Em.138.jpeg|319
    Davie Hinshaw - dhinshaw@charlotteobserver.com
    About 50 fast-food workers and supporters marched along South Boulevard Thursday morning, August 29, 2013, stopping in front of a Taco Bell restaurant as they participated in a nationwide event protesting low wages. Organizers say thousands of fast-food workers are set to stage walkouts in dozens of cities around the country, part of a push to get chains such as McDonald's, Taco Bell and Wendy's to pay workers higher wages. DAVIE HINSHAW, dhinshaw@charlotteobserver.com
  • http://media.charlotteobserver.com/smedia/2013/08/29/13/32/1rUVtM.Em.138.jpeg|190
    Davie Hinshaw - dhinshaw@charlotteobserver.com
    About 50 fast-food workers and supporters marched along South Boulevard Thursday morning, August 29, 2013, stopping in front of a Taco Bell restaurant as they participated in a nationwide event protesting low wages. Organizers say thousands of fast-food workers are set to stage walkouts in dozens of cities around the country, part of a push to get chains such as McDonald's, Taco Bell and Wendy's to pay workers higher wages. DAVIE HINSHAW, dhinshaw@charlotteobserver.com
  • http://media.charlotteobserver.com/smedia/2013/08/29/13/32/1aVLyN.Em.138.jpeg|252
    Davie Hinshaw - dhinshaw@charlotteobserver.com
    About 50 fast-food workers and supporters marched along South Boulevard Thursday morning, August 29, 2013, stopping in front of a Taco Bell restaurant as they participated in a nationwide event protesting low wages. Organizers say thousands of fast-food workers are set to stage walkouts in dozens of cities around the country, part of a push to get chains such as McDonald's, Taco Bell and Wendy's to pay workers higher wages. DAVIE HINSHAW, dhinshaw@charlotteobserver.com
  • http://media.charlotteobserver.com/smedia/2013/08/29/13/31/CRKNw.Em.138.jpeg|268
    Davie Hinshaw - dhinshaw@charlotteobserver.com
    About 50 fast-food workers and supporters marched along South Boulevard Thursday morning, August 29, 2013, stopping in front of a Taco Bell restaurant as they participated in a nationwide event protesting low wages. Organizers say thousands of fast-food workers are set to stage walkouts in dozens of cities around the country, part of a push to get chains such as McDonald's, Taco Bell and Wendy's to pay workers higher wages. DAVIE HINSHAW, dhinshaw@charlotteobserver.com
  • http://media.charlotteobserver.com/smedia/2013/08/29/13/31/htTY8.Em.138.jpeg|305
    Davie Hinshaw - dhinshaw@charlotteobserver.com
    About 50 fast-food workers and supporters marched along South Boulevard Thursday morning, August 29, 2013, stopping in front of a Taco Bell restaurant as they participated in a nationwide event protesting low wages. Organizers say thousands of fast-food workers are set to stage walkouts in dozens of cities around the country, part of a push to get chains such as McDonald's, Taco Bell and Wendy's to pay workers higher wages. DAVIE HINSHAW, dhinshaw@charlotteobserver.com

About two dozen people picketed in front of a south Charlotte Taco Bell Thursday, part of a wave of rallies nationwide protesting low wages at America’s fast-food restaurants.

The Charlotte protesters met in a Lynx light-rail parking lot on South Boulevard and marched to a nearby Taco Bell, holding signs that read “We are worth more” and chanting: “No more burgers. No more fries. We want our wages supersized.”

Among Charlotte protesters was Tremaine Tribble, 39, who said he was a shift manager at the Taco Bell targeted by pickets. He said he’s trying to support himself, his live-in girlfriend and her two children on about $400 every two weeks.

“We need more money,” he said, adding that fast-food crew members fuel the industry’s success.

“It’s not the executives. They’re not in here greeting the people who come in. They don’t work in the stores. We work harder than they work.”

His co-worker, Lindsey Ware, 19, said she can’t pay her way through school at the Art Institute of Charlotte on the $7.25-an-hour minimum wage she is paid.

“I went and got a job. I did the right thing. But I’m still struggling,” Ware said.

Thursday’s effort to stage a nationwide day of protest by thousands of workers reached about 60 cities including New York, Chicago and Detroit, organizers said.

But turnouts varied significantly, with some targeted restaurants operating relatively normally and others temporarily shutting down because they had too few employees.

The Taco Bell on South Boulevard locked its lobby doors during the protest, but a manager inside pointed to a sign on the door indicating the drive-thru remained open.

In the Triangle area, about 50 workers started the morning in Durham, protesting at Burger King and McDonald’s restaurants where some of the strikers worked. By lunchtime, the protest shifted to Raleigh, where picketing continued in front of a Little Caesars Pizza on Capital Boulevard.

Julio Wilson said he earned $9 an hour at the pizza restaurant, where he has worked for about six months. He said it’s not enough to support himself and his 5-year-old daughter.

“I know I’m risking my job, but it’s my right to fight for what I deserve,” Wilson said. “Nine dollars an hour is not enough to make ends meet nowadays.”

Low-wage recovery

Advocates for a higher minimum wage note that jobs in low-wage industries have led the economic recovery. That makes it crucial that those jobs pay enough for workers who support families.

The restaurant industry says it already operates on thin margins and insists that sharply higher wages would lead to steeper prices for customers and fewer opportunities for job seekers.

Organizers said walkouts were planned Thursday in Atlanta, Boston, Hartford, Conn., Las Vegas, Los Angeles and other cities.

In Detroit, the dining area of a McDonald’s on the city’s northwest side was shut down as workers and others protested outside.

In New York, Christine Quinn, City Council speaker and mayoral candidate, joined about 300 to 400 workers and supporters in a march before the group flooded into a McDonald’s near the Empire State Building.

Shortly after the demonstration, however, the restaurant seemed to be operating normally, and a few customers said they hadn’t heard of the movement. The same was true at a McDonald’s a few blocks away.

The lack of public awareness illustrates the challenge workers face in building wider support. Participating workers, who are asking for $15 an hour and the right to unionize without interference from employers, still represent a tiny fraction of the industry.

The federal minimum wage is $7.25 an hour, which works out to about $15,000 a year for full-time employees.

The quest for better pay comes as the White House, some members of Congress and economists seek to raise the federal minimum wage. But most proposals are for a more modest increase, with President Barack Obama suggesting $9 an hour.

Cost of higher pay

The latest protests come after a series of strikes that began last November in New York City. The biggest effort so far was over the summer when about 2,200 of the country’s millions of fast-food workers staged a one-day strike in seven cities.

McDonald’s Corp. and Burger King Worldwide Inc. say they don’t make decisions about pay for the independent franchisees that operate the majority of their U.S. restaurants. At restaurants that McDonald’s owns, the company said, any move to raise entry-level pay would raise overall costs and lead to higher menu prices.

“We respect our employees’ rights to voice their opinions. Employees who participate in these activities and return to work are welcomed back and scheduled to work their regular shifts as usual,” the company said.

It also noted that the protests didn’t give an accurate picture of what it means to work at McDonald’s. The company said it provides professional development for interested employees.

Wendy’s said in statement that it was “proud to provide a place where thousands of people, who come to us asking for a job, can enter the workforce at a starting wage, gain skills and advance with us or move on to something else.”

Subway and Yum Brands Inc., which owns KFC, Taco Bell and Pizza Hut, did not respond to a request for comment.

Even though they’re not part of unions, fast-food workers who take part in strikes are generally protected from being fired or having employers retaliate against them. Federal labor law gives all workers the right to engage in “protected concerted activities” to complain about wages, working conditions or other terms of employment.

‘Start your own business’

The Charlotte protesters included organizers from Action NC, a community organizing group that supports immigration reform, affordable health care and higher pay for low-wage workers.

Passers-by on South Boulevard either honked their horns in support or slowed to yell at the pickets to get jobs, or go back to school so they can get better jobs.

“Nobody’s forcing you to work here,” said a man in a pickup truck, as he pulled out of the drive-thru. “You can start your own business.”

“You think everybody in there can start their own business?” replied Luis Rodriguez, an organizer with Action NC.

The marchers said the tough job market doesn’t offer them many other options, and their uneven work hours make going back to school difficult. They said the fast-food corporations are making billions off the backs of underpaid workers and can afford to share more of their earnings with them.

Kenny Colbert, president of The Employers’ Association, a Charlotte-based group that provides training and human resources services to 900 companies, came to the parking lot and offered the employers’ perspective.

He said the marchers need to consider whether similarly low-skill workers get $15 an hour in other jobs.

“I can respect everybody’s right to make a living wage. But $15 is probably more than ... what the market will bear,” he said.

“Every company is in business to make a profit, so you have to respect that, too.” The Associated Press and the (Raleigh) News & Observer contributed.

Frazier: 704-358-5145;@Ericfraz on Twitter
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