ST. LOUIS—Workers at more than 30 fast food restaurants in St. Louis walked off the job Thursday in a one-day strike that seeks better wages and benefits and the right to form a union.
The walkout, organized after a meeting of workers and community activists, follows similar strikes at fast food chains in New York in Chicago.
The Rev. Martin Rafanan of Missouri Jobs with Justice, one of the organizers of the St. Louis strike, said more than 100 workers walked strike lines at restaurants that included McDonald’s, Panera, Chipotle, Jack in the Box, Hardee’s, Domino’s and Wendy’s.
“You have people working full-time, wanting to play by the rules to take care of their families, but they are unable to do so because of low wages, lack of benefits and no control of their hours,” Rafanan said. “Put that together and you have this situation that is extremely challenging for a family.”
April Thomas, 31, of St. Louis, was striking at a St. Louis Hardee’s, where she works as a kitchen leader. She said she has worked in fast food since she was 16, and makes $8 an hour with no benefits.
“I just don’t make enough to cover my rent, let alone pay the other bills,” said Thomas, a mother of three. “My daughter just had her 11th birthday and I couldn’t get her anything. I broke down and cried because I’m usually able to buy at least something.”
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Messages seeking comment from Hardee’s corporate office in California were not immediately returned.
As in those efforts in others cities, the St. Louis workers are asking for $15 an hour instead of wages that hover closer to the minimum.
Rafanan, who previously was director of a homeless shelter for women and children, said the typical fast food worker in St. Louis is 28 and makes about $8 an hour. About 36,000 people work in fast food across the region.
Data from the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics show that two-thirds of fast food workers are women. The average national wage is $8.76. Rafanan said many earn the minimum wage -- $7.25 nationally, $7.35 in Missouri.
“I realize I’m not the CEO of a fast food company,” said 19-year-old Aldridge, a student at St. Louis Community College at Forest Park.
But he said the $8 an hour he makes at Jimmy John’s is not proper compensation for his work. It’s not enough, for example, to pay for repairs to his car, which he sometimes uses to deliver sandwiches.
While Aldridge granted that $15 an hour may be a lofty goal, he said it was a good starting point for negotiations.
The strike, which is supposed to be mostly a one-day affair, will culminate with a rally in the Delmar Loop Thursday afternoon.
“The numbers are fluid,” said Rafanan. “But they are growing.”
Rafanan said about two out of five women who sought refuge at his shelter were working in low-wage jobs. He said many of them in fast food and retail.
“Why can’t multinational corporations, many of them make millions, if not billions, in profit not pay workers a wage that allows them to take care of their family?” asked Rafanan.
In a statement, McDonald’s said that it and its franchisees work hard to treat employees with dignity and respect.
“Employees are paid competitive wages and have access to a range of benefits to meet their individual needs,” the statement said. “In addition, employees who want to go from crew to management can take advantage of a variety of training and professional development opportunities.”
Stephen Cole, Executive Director of the Missouri Restaurant Association, said that each business operator has to balance labor costs against the revenue coming in.
“Our membership pays their workers in a fair, equitable way based on market conditions,” Cole said.
An effort to get an initiative on the ballot last year to raise the minimum wage in Missouri by $1 failed.
But in recent months, a coalition of community, labor, and faith-based groups launched a campaign called “STL Can’t Survive on $7.35.” The decision to hold a strike grew out of that campaign’s meetings with workers.
Organizers have also recently formed an independent union for fast food workers, the St. Louis Organizing Committee.
The dozens of St. Louis workers expected to take part in the strike are a small fraction of the thousands who work in the growing fast food industry in this region.
Paul Sonn, legal co-director for the National Employment Law Project, noted that the fast food industry lost jobs at half the rate as the rest of the economy during the recession.
“Now, during the recovery, it is adding jobs at twice the rate as the rest of the economy,” he said. “So more and more adults are spending significant portions of their career in one of the lowest-wage occupations in our economy.”
But pay has remained essentially flat, if not dropped in real terms, for fast food workers over the last decade, Sonn added.
23-year-old Patrick Leeper planned to walk out on his shift Thursday at the Chipotle in the Delmar Loop, where he has worked for more than three years. He said he makes about $8.55 an hour, which is not enough to cover his living expenses.
“When I get my paycheck, it’s barely enough to pay the rent and hopefully a utility bill or two,” said Leeper. “The fast food industry needs to change, because too many people are struggling.”
For Aldridge, the issue is not just wages and schedules, but also respect. He listed a number of complaints, such as being scheduled for 4.5 hour shifts instead of 5 hours, which would guarantee him a sandwich and a break.
And he recounted how one day after making minor mistakes with some sandwiches, a manager told him to hold up a sign that said “I made three wrong sandwiches” and took a picture of him. In one case, he said he had put the turkey and roast beef in the wrong order and in another he put eight hot peppers on a sandwich instead of five.
“I’m fed up with my store,” he said.
Here is a list of places where workers were expected to walk out on Thursday:
8 a.m. - Hardee’s at 2110 Hampton
10 a.m. - Wendy’s at 9604 Manchester
12 p.m. - Arby’s at 4111 Lindell
4:30 p.m. - Rally and march at Kingsland and Delmar
5:00 p.m. - Church’s Chicken at 6190 Delmar
5:30 p.m. - Rally and concert at Leeland and Delmar
The Associated Press contributed to this report.