“There are workers in the South still continuing to carry on that legacy to fight for racial and economic justice because they know those fights are intertwined,” Umel told CNN Business on Friday.
“Raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour is among the most powerful tools to lift up Black and Brown workers,” she said.
McDonald’s cook Rita Blalock, 54, of Raleigh, North Carolina, was one of dozens of fast food employees participating in a car caravan protest outside a McDonald’s restaurant in the nearby city of Durham on Friday.
Blalock said her employer cut her hours back in March when Covid-19-related lockdowns caused many fast food chains to lose business. Since then, Blalock, who says she makes $10 an hour, has been struggling to pay her bills. She said McDonald’s could improve her situation by raising their minimum wage nationally and granting workers like her guaranteed benefits, including medical insurance and paid sick leave.
“I couldn’t pay rent, couldn’t eat a lot of times,” she told CNN Business. “If you can’t go to work but so many hours, you don’t have enough to cover what you need to cover in the first place.”
McDonald’s said it unequivocally supports the need for racial equality and social justice and that Friday’s strike doesn’t reflect how it has protected and provided employment to more than 800,000 people during the pandemic. The company stopped lobbying against increases to the federal minimum wage in 2019, and says elected officials have a responsibility to debate, change and set the standards.
“We strive to ensure that everyone who works under the Arches shows up each day to a safe and inclusive workplace that provides access to continuous opportunities,” McDonald’s spokesperson Jesse Lewin said via email.
Wanda Lavender works as a manager at a Popeyes in Milwaukee. The 39-year-old single mother of six participated in a car caravan protest outside a McDonald’s in Milwaukee Friday afternoon. She said she makes $12 an hour and works more than 50 hours a week at Popeyes. Lavender says she hasn’t been getting paid for sick leave or vacation days since 2019.
“These are the things we were fighting for over 50 years ago and we’re fighting for those same things now,” she said.
Popeyes didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.
A turning point
“This moment really comes down to a change and a realization of the value of work,” Umel said. “It is a recognition that it is well beyond time to make sure this happens.”