Between 20 and 30 New Haven fast-food workers on strike joined activists, union members, clergy and elected officials at St. Luke’s Episcopal church on Thursday afternoon to call for better wages and fair treatment.
The workers were joined by thousands of others in over 100 cities across the country as part of a national movement for a $15 an hour “living wage” and for the right to unionize without fearing employer retaliation. Together, the activists traveled in cars to a nearby Dunkin’ Donuts and Subway to demonstrate solidarity with the workers.
Protesters entered both locations en masse, chanting, clapping and delivering speeches through a bullhorn. No one asked the protesters to leave at either restaurant.
There are over 5,660 fast-food workers in New Haven, earning an average wage of $9.10 an hour, 85 cents over the Connecticut minimum wage of $8.25. The workers at the rally said it is impossible to pay bills and make ends meet with such low wages.
“I live on my own, and I always find myself sitting down with all my bills just terrified of how I’m going to make it to my next paycheck,” said striking worker Josh Griffin, former manager of a local McDonalds franchise. He said he was suddenly demoted last week with no explanation.
He said he was suddenly demoted last week without explanation. Though Griffin worries about employer retaliation for his involvement in the strike, he said that considering the widespread community support at the protest it was worth the risk.
Connecticut Senator Richard Blumenthal LAW ’73, who spoke at the rally, is co-sponsoring a Senate bill that would raise the national minimum wage to $10 an hour, and ensure this figure would be constantly adjusted for inflation. Such adjustment is not mandated under current minimum wage laws. He said he hopes the strikers’ goal of $15 an hour will be realized one day but that the senate measure is a step in the right direction.
“This issue relates to the whole economy,” he said. “Raising the minimum wage stimulates consumption. It’s a fundamental fact of the economy that there can’t be growth without consumption.”
The practice of paying fast food workers at or near minimum wage is a drain on public funds, according to a 2012 study from the UC Berkeley Labor Center. Over half of the families of front-line fast-food workers rely on government assistance of some kind, costing nearly $7 billion per year.
The median age of fast food workers is 28, said Benjamin Phillips, a communications director for the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), which is a large backer of the movement. Because of the poor economy, workers have to stay in these jobs for much longer than they initially expect, he said.
“[Fast food corporations’] business model relies on paying workers a poverty wage and leech[ing] off of the community in the form of food stamps and other government services,” he said.
The movement began last December when 200 fast food workers in New York City staged a walk out. Though Thursday marked the first day New Haven workers got involved in the strike, Hartford area fast food workers had already walked out of their jobs at the end of the summer.
Kevin Burgos, the organizer of a strike at the Dunkin’ Donuts in Hartford in August, said workers were seeing results from the action: His fellow workers at Dunkin’ Donuts earned pay raises and strikers at a neighboring Subway were given work breaks for the first time.
“It’s a great feeling knowing you’re standing up for what you believe in,” he said.
Burgos, who is struggling to support his three children, said he has not received a raise in the past six years he has spent working at the bakery.
A contingency of SEIU employees also drove up from Washington to attend the rally.
“We see this as not just a campaign for the $15 an hour wage but as a larger social movement to address the growing inequality that is undermining the values on which this country is founded,” said Deborah Chernoff, another communications director for the union.
To date, no fast food restaurant employees are unionized in the United States.
Ward 2 Alderman Frank Douglass also attended the rally, which took place in his ward, because he believes the city should be supporting the workers in the fast food industry, a growing sector in New Haven.
“People can’t live comfortably off eight to nine dollars an hour,” he said. “A gallon of milk costs four dollars!”
A Gallup poll published last month revealed that 76 percent of American support raising the national minimum wage to $9 an hour.