Chanting “We can’t survive on $7.25” and wearing shirts that say “S.C. Raise Up,” a group of about 25 local fast-food workers and supporters picketed Thursday outside the McDonald’s restaurant at 2050 Savannah Highway.
The protest was part of a 100-city demonstration by workers at fast-food chains in demand of $15-an-hour wages and the right to form unions without interference from employers, although the $15 figure is seen more as a rallying point than a near-term possibility.
At a time when there’s growing national and international attention on economic disparities, labor unions and worker-advocacy groups are hoping to build public support to raise the current federal minimum wage of $7.25, or just under $15,000 a year for full-time work.
Rob Green, executive director of the National Council of Chain Restaurants, issued a statement in response to the protests.
“Today’s protests against the food service industry, orchestrated by special-interest groups on behalf of organized labor, are part of an ongoing effort to replace fact with fiction while ignoring simple truths,” he said. “The vast majority of restaurant workers make more than the starting wage. Workers at the thousands of quick-service restaurant locations across the country are committed to their jobs and realize that these positions provide a foundation to develop skills and knowledge that lead to greater opportunities.”
Fast-food employees in Charleston County are paid an average hourly wage of $8.59, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Shawndrakae Mack of Edisto Island has worked six years at the McDonald’s where the demonstrators gathered Thursday. Even though she said she was afraid of getting fired for participating, she said, “I work too hard for too little money.”
Mack, a single mother of two teenagers, earns $7.60 per hour. She said it’s very difficult to make ends meet, even with food stamps and Medicaid for her children.
One of Mack’s major expenses is athletic equipment for her son, age 17, and daughter, age 15, who attend Clark Academy on James Island.
“With their sports and good grades, they’re really looking forward to going to college,” she said. “They’re into sports so they can try to get scholarships to go to school because they know I can’t afford to send them.”
Mack said she hasn’t looked for a different job because her schedule at McDonald’s allows her to take her kids to and from the bus stop.
George Hopkins, a coordinator of the South Carolina Progressive Network in Charleston, helped organize the demonstration in Charleston.
“(Mack) talked about getting food stamps and her kids being on Medicaid. If these workers aren’t making a minimum wage, it’s the taxpayers who subsidize that,” Hopkins said. “You and I are paying for that, but McDonald’s makes a lot of money. They can afford to pay their workers more.”
The Charleston Metro Chamber of Commerce doesn’t support a mandated raise in the minimum wage, but works to create better opportunities for unskilled workers in Charleston.
“We are not in favor in raising the minimum wage because we believe in the free-enterprise system,” said Mary Graham, senior vice president.
The Chamber strives to bring more jobs to the Lowcountry that pay higher wages, Graham said, “but (the employers) are looking for employees with high levels of skills.”
“One of the things the community needs to do a better job of is educating folks on where the resources are that can help them get retrained and get the help they need to get a different type of job,” she said.
While many passing cars on Savannah Highway honked in solidarity with the protesters, one honked to get the protesters out of the way when he pulled into the drive-thru lane.
The driver swerved into a parking space, slammed his car door shut and yelled at the protesters gathered on the sidewalk in front of the restaurant.
“Go to (expletive) school,” he said, quickly covering his face with a ball cap and retreating when he saw cameras.
Shekema James, a Taco Bell employee who protested Thursday, said she often is asked why she doesn’t go to school to get a better job, or why she doesn’t find better employment if she’s unhappy.
“It hurts my feelings. He’s saying I’m not educated because I work at Taco Bell? I’m getting my associate of science at Trident,” she said. “I’ll probably still have to work at a fast-food place though, because there’s a lot of jobs that Charleston doesn’t have.”
Even with financial aid, she said it’s hard to get by on a $7.25-an-hour wage.
Despite the growing focus on economic disparities, the push for higher pay in the fast-food industry faces an uphill battle. The industry competes aggressively on low prices, and companies have warned that they would need to raise prices if wages were increased.
Reach Abigail Darlington at 937-5906 and follow her on Twitter @A_Big_Gail. The Associated Press contributed to this report.
About 25 fast-food employees and supporters picket Thursday outside of a Savannah Highway McDonald’s chanting, “We can’t survive on 7.25.”×
Local fast-food workers and supporters protest Thursday outside of a McDonald’s on Savannah Highway.×
Erin McKee and Carol Dotterer protest Thursday in front of McDonald’s on Savannah Highway in West Ashley for better wages for fast-food workers.×