Joining a nationwide campaign, local fast-food workers took part in a demonstration at the Wendy’s Restaurant location on Warwick Avenue in Warwick last Thursday to call for a $15 hourly wage and the right to unionize.
Fast-food jobs are “no longer the realm of high schools kids looking for pocket change” and instead are held by “men and women trying to make a living,” said Warwick Ward 3 Councilwoman Camille Vella-Wilkinson.
In a gesture designed to show the power of workers and advocates standing together, the councilwoman easily snapped one pencil before holding many together in her hands.
“When you organize, you have strength,” she said.
The Rev. Santiago Rodriguez, pastor of Gloria Dei Lutheran Church in Providence, framed the issue in stark moral terms.
“Today, God is angry,” he told demonstrators. “God is against all kinds of exploitation.”
The Warwick demonstration was among similar gatherings and walkouts scheduled to take place in 100 cities across the country Dec. 5 as part of the fast-food campaign.
In a press release sent ahead of the event, the organization RI Jobs with Justice stated there are currently 11,650 fast-food workers in the Providence area, with a median wage of $8.80 and hour. Demonstrators cited the workers’ low wages, limited and often variable hours and lack of access to the benefits afforded full-time employees as being motivating factors behind the national campaign.
“The amount we’re being paid is ridiculous,” said Reggie Davis, a demonstrator who said he has been employed in the fast-food industry for 2½ years.
Bounche Dorbor, another fast-food worker, said low wages and lack of hours have become a major issue in terms of supporting her children.
“Thanks to everybody for standing up for us,” she told those present.
A crowd of a few dozen – consisting of fast-food workers joined by activists and community leaders – marched to the Wendy’s location at noon. Those taking part carried signs and chanted slogans calling for higher wages, including “Hey hey, ho ho, poverty wages got to go!,” “We can’t survive on $7.75” and “Hold the burger, hold the fries, we want wages Biggie size.”
The demonstrators, led by Jesse Strecker of RI Jobs with Justice, attempted to enter the Wendy’s upon arriving but found the establishment’s management had locked the doors. Strecker said the workers and activists had arrived “to deliver a strike notice.”
Using a megaphone, organizers led demonstrators to the front of the restaurant for a planned speaking program. Strecker said the gathering was part of a “day of national action,” and that a “broad coalition” of groups representing community, religious and political support took part.
A self-described “civil rights advocate,” Vella-Wilkinson said her involvement in the Wendy’s demonstration stemmed from her belief that there is “something fundamentally wrong” with the way the industry operates. She framed the issue as one of social justice, saying low wages and erratic scheduling leave workers trapped in a “fast-food employment cycle.”
The councilwoman also took issue with the idea that higher wages will negatively impact job creation and said “providing a true living wage benefits workers and communities.”
State Rep. David A. Bennett, a registered nurse who represents portions of Warwick and Cranston in District 20, also pushed back against the argument that businesses – and, thus, employment opportunities – would be hurt by higher wages.
“It’s so hard to live on that kind of money,” he said of the current wage levels, adding that people spend their earnings “right here in their own towns.” “It’s something we have to pay attention to,” he said. “We’re all in tough times. Think of how tough it is on them.”
Bennett referenced his involvement in successful efforts to increase the minimum wage in Rhode Island and said he plans to continue that advocacy with new legislative proposals pending further discussions with lawmakers and others. He also said the Ocean State needs to keep pace with neighboring Connecticut and Massachusetts in terms of wage equality.
“I don’t want to hurt the small businesses,” he said regarding the importance of reaching out to a broad range of constituencies.
Aside from Vella-Wilkinson and Bennett, other community leaders on hand included Rhode Island AFL-CIO President George H. Nee and Providence mayoral candidate Jorge O. Elorza.
Midway through the demonstration, police arrived and requested that the rally move to the sidewalk. Officers said there were no issues and that the primary concern was ensuring the safety of pedestrians and motorists. Police had arrived after calls from Wendy’s management and passing motorists.
As the program concluded, demonstrators had a final message for Wendy’s, joining collectively in a chant of “We’ll be back.”