Simon Rojas has only been working at McDonald’s for eight months, and he has already received a raise. Standing outside a Golden Arches outpost on Sunset Boulevard in Los Angeles, Rojas, dressed in a sky blue “Fight for $15” shirt, laughed when I asked him if he was still at a starting wage.
“Well, I moved up 7 cents, so $8.07” is now his hourly wage, he said with a tight smile.
Just 23, he’s the type of young worker who might conceivably be able to support himself while earning 7 cents more than the California state minimum wage of $8 per hour. He's single and childless, so you might think he has few financial responsibilities. But like many of the striking fast-food workers I spoke with during Thursday's national day of labor protests, his economic circumstances are by no means simple.
“I live with my mom, my two sisters, my brother, and my dad” and one of his sister's kids, Rojas told me above the din of protest chants, shouted in Spanish and English, calling for a starting wage of $15 per hour and a union. Both of his parents are disabled.
“It’s hard because of the economy and stuff, and prices are up; all our bills are outrageous. We’re barely making it by, and we’re falling behind as we speak. Fifteen dollars per hour would help us out a great deal,” he said.
Rojas studied at a preparatory college to be a pharmacy technician but hasn’t been able to find work in that field. Despite his last name, he does not speak Spanish, and most technician jobs require employees to be bilingual. When he has the time and money, Rojas wants to go back to school to learn a second language.
Later, speaking to the crowd of approximately 100 people, mainly striking workers, from a flatbed truck turned stage, Rojas haltingly recounted how he’s been worrying about bills, about utilities getting cut off, since he was 10. His family, he said, has come dangerously close to homelessness on several occasions.
Rallies like the one I attended in the neighborhood of Silver Lake, and an earlier 6 a.m. gathering at a McDonald’s in South Los Angeles, took place in 100 cities around the country, marking the largest one-day strike by fast-food workers yet.
In the year that’s passed since workers walked off the job in New York City late last November, the first of many one-day strikes, the movement to bring higher wages, benefits, and union representation to the industry has grown steadily. Stories of McDonald’s advice to low-wage workers—to get on public assistance, to take an extra vacation, or to sing while working—have become a key narrative in the national debate over income inequality, which has reached levels unseen since the early 20th century.
President Obama touched briefly on fast-food workers in the speech on inequality he gave at the Center for American Progress yesterday. The president said that while some of the high-paying manufacturing jobs that sustained the middle class in past decades are coming back to the United States, “we know that there are airport workers, and fast-food workers, and nurse assistants, and retail salespeople who work their tails off and are still living at or barely above poverty.”
To pull the working poor up toward the middle class, Obama is calling for the minimum wage to be raised to $10.10 per hour. The current federal minimum wage, $7.25, “is below where it was when Harry Truman was in office” when adjusted for inflation, the president said.
Indeed, wages have been lagging in the United States since the 1970s, around the same time the inequality gap began to widen. According to the Pew Research Center, the minimum wage, when adjusted for inflation, peaked in 1968 at $8.56 per hour in 2012 dollars.
Bartolomé Perez has worked at McDonald's for 21 years.
But in Silver Lake, Rob Tejada, an articulate 19-year-old who has worked at Taco Bell for the last 10 months, makes it clear that he’s fighting for $15, as his shirt also says—not $10.10.
“That is actually beside this movement,” he said when I asked his thoughts on the president’s call for a higher minimum wage. "Anyone who is willing to work very hard doesn’t deserve the minimum—no matter what the minimum is. They can raise it up to $9, $10, but things are going to go up in price too, so that kind of makes up for it—we’re still back at the same problem. So that’s not the answer. The answer is to pay the workers the fair wage.”
Like Rojas, Tejada lives at home, his meager check helping to pay his family’s bills. His father works, but his mother’s only income is from federal disability payments. After rent, utilities, and community college tuition, he’s left with $40 for himself until payday comes again in two weeks.
“If that’s a problem for me, if I struggle with that,” Tejada wondered, “imagine how people with children who have to pay full rent, to pay full bills, and have to feed their kids—how can they ever survive with that?”
McDonald’s, for its part, argues that its labor practices aren’t putting employees, those with children or otherwise, at a disadvantage. In an emailed statement, spokesperson Lisa McComb wrote, “McDonald’s and our owner-operators are committed to providing our employees with opportunities to succeed. We offer employees advancement opportunities, competitive pay and benefits. And we invest in training and professional development that helps them learn practical and transferable business skills.”
McComb, who correctly corrected my description of the day’s events as a work stoppage, pushed back on the strike narrative. “We also respect the right to voice an opinion,” she wrote. “To right-size the headlines, however, the events taking place are not strikes. Outside groups are traveling to McDonald’s and other outlets to stage rallies. Our restaurants remain open today—and every day—thanks to our dedicated employees serving our customers.”
Bartolomé Perez, who attended the Silver Lake rally, has been one of those employees for 21 years. He earned $4.25 an hour when he first started working at a McDonald’s in South Los Angeles, and his wages have risen to $10.75 over the years. Three years ago, he was cut from full-time to 30 hours per week. When I asked if he received benefits before his hours were dropped, he smiled. “For fast-food workers, [they] do not exist, benefits,” he answered in heavily accented English.
Perez’s wife works part-time for the Los Angeles Unified School District, a union job with a benefits package he’s in awe of—she only works four hours a day but receives health insurance, sick leave, vacation, and more. But Perez’s wife's paycheck only covers some of the bills, and Perez has to pay their rent, more than $1,000 per month, out of his earnings.
“We work full-time this kind of work, and they don’t give us nothing,” he said, comparing his job with his wife’s. “That’s the reason why we fight for a union. We fight for benefits, good benefits, $15—we need the support of a union.”
Along with the milling, chanting workers, holding up signs reading “Better Pay, Better L.A.” and “Strike for a Better Los Angeles,” and organizers carrying clipboards full of SEIU materials, a number of religious leaders were present at the Silver Lake rally. There was a rabbi, a pastor from the Southern Christian Leadership Council, and Stephen Cue, a minister from The Row, a church with no walls on Los Angeles’ Skid Row.
Cue, with a thundering delivery that was one part Martin Luther King Jr., one part Huey Newton, delivered a concise speech from the truck-bed stage, punctuated with call-and-response cries of “No peace! No justice!” between him and the crowd.
“When you pay people $8 an hour, you know where they end up after a while?” he asked. “On the streets of Skid Row. And we don’t want that in California, do we?”
Tejada, the 19-year-old Taco Bell worker, surely doesn’t plan to end up homeless. After he saves up enough money, his goal is to transfer from El Camino Community College to UC Berkeley to get his degree in astrophysics.