COLUMBIA — Fast-food employees, workers' rights advocates and local religious leaders held rallies outside two local restaurants Thursday in support of a living wage and the right to unionize.
Chanting slogans and clutching signs, the protesters called for the establishment of a $15 minimum wage — about twice the Missouri minimum of $7.35. Similar protests were held across the country.
The first rally in Columbia was at 9:30 a.m. outside Hardee's at the corner of Providence and Locust streets. About 40 people gathered and directed their energy at the drivers of passing cars.
"We can't survive on $7.35! We can't survive on $7.35!" the crowd yelled. Every now and then, a driver would honk in presumed support, eliciting a cheer from those assembled.
"All those workers, all those fries, we need our wages super-sized!"
After a while, the group turned around and addressed the workers inside the Hardee's who had chosen not to join them.
"Come on out, we got your back! Come on out, we got your back!" they shouted.
There were no takers, although at one point two employees wearing headsets exited the Hardee's to look at what was happening. They smiled for a few seconds and walked back in.
The protesters took a break to hear from the Rev. Molly Housh Gordon, a representative of Missouri Faith Voices, an organization which helped organize the day's activities.
"I believe that God created us all with dignity and worth and that all work and all people are worth a living wage that lets them put food on their tables and a roof over their heads," Housh Gordon said.
Dontay Tolston, 23, said he's been an employee at this Hardee's for 1 1/2 years. He likes his job as the night closing cook, and he even wore his black Hardee's cap to the rally. He started out working minimum wage, at least 40 hours a week. Recently, that changed.
"I got a raise not long ago, and ended up making less than I got before," Tolston said. His pay was raised to $8.40 an hour, he said, but his hours were cut to 30 a week. Often, he said, he gets assigned even less.
Tolston said those hours and his pay make it a struggle to meet his rent of $600 per month.
Unlike several other workers at the rally, Tolston was planning to work his shift later that night. Otherwise, he said, he wouldn't be able to pay his bills.
The heat of the noonday sun seemed to invigorate rather than slow down the group, which reassembled with more or less the same members a little before noon outside Taco Bell at 508 East Nifong Blvd.
"Dance to the left, dance to the right. Down with corporate greed!" yelled a man with a megaphone. The crowd enthusiastically played along, kicking their legs and laughing as they did the "corporate shuffle."
James Brown, 31, of Columbia joined in the fun, but he was there for a more serious reason. Brown said he's worked 35 hours per week as a crew trainer at this Taco Bell location for about a year, but his $7.50-an-hour wage doesn't cover living expenses for him and his 1-year-old son, Isiaha.
As a result, he's had to fall back on high-interest payday loans. Even then, Brown said, he's not sure how he'll pay the $360 it's going to take to fix his home air conditioner.
Brown had a message for his fellow fast-food employees who chose not to participate in the rallies today.
"I would like to tell each and every last worker in America that they should stand up for what's right," Brown said. "Come and be a part of this big movement."
A couple of minutes later, the group turned to face the Taco Bell, whose owner declined to comment, and chanted the same thing it had earlier.
"Come on out, we got your back! Come on out, we got your back!"
As the voices rose, a curious customer walked to the front entrance and took a picture of the group. No workers emerged.
By now, the restaurant was bustling. Car after car drove past the protesters and into the drive-thru lane near a message in large letters on the restaurant's sign: "Come try the new smothered burrito."
Brown found out about the rally from a co-worker, Cynthia Kronk, 19. They joined co-worker Unrica Parrow, 20, in holding a sign with the words, "Show Me Strike 4 $15."
Kronk said she makes $7.35 an hour and has worked at the store since March as a steamer. "I make everybody's food," she said.
Kronk has severe asthma and thinks that a $15 an hour wage would help her cover her medical bills. She hoped that Thursday's strike would lead to more in the future.
She and Parrow admitted that the prospect of a strike was frightening to many of their co-workers. Kronk mentioned two of her fellow employees who had told her they would come to the rally Thursday but didn't. Parrow said she talked to several people who were afraid to come.
Parrow, though, is adamant that their cause is just and worth the risk.
"We're not trying to make corporate owners upset at all," she said. "We just want to make them see what it's like to live in our shoes."
Around 12:15 p.m., the rallying workers and their supporters decided to call it quits for the day. Many planned to drive to St. Louis later Thursday afternoon to attend a rally there.
As Housh Gordon said earlier, "This is not the end; it's just the beginning."
Supervising editor is John Schneller.