Protesters join national rally for higher wages

Thursday, December 5, 2013 | 6:29 p.m. CST

COLUMBIA — At 11:59 a.m. Thursday, a colorful array of puffer jackets and pea coats spilled out of a white van and into a parking lot off Business Loop 70.

Armed with protest signs, seven people made their way to a tuft of grass in front of a Burger King. At 12:04 p.m. they started chanting.

"What do we want? Union! When do we want it? Now!" they chanted.

The protesters were part of a larger, national movement that staged fast-food walkouts and rallies in cities across the country on Thursday. Fast-food workers met with clergy and community members in support of raising the minimum wage to $15 per hour.

But no workers came out to join the Columbia protesters. Across the street, a line of cars in the McDonald's drive-thru stretched into the road. No one but a manager at the Burger King — who had come out to tell the protesters not to take pictures — and the hungry lunch crowd stirred from the buildings.

The chanting continued as the crowd of protestors swelled to about 20 people.

"We're supporting human dignity for all people. A living wage is part of that," Maureen Dickman, the pastor of Rock Bridge Christian Church, said.

Dickman said she attended the rally because she has met a lot of fast-food workers who don't make enough to pay their bills. When they can't pay for their living expenses, they have to enroll in welfare and other benefit programs, she said.

Federal minimum wage is $7.25 — a $15,000 per year paycheck for full-time employees. Median pay for high-end fast-food restaurants is $8.69.

In a study released by the UC Berkeley Labor Center in October, researchers found that working families make up 73 percent of enrollment in major public benefits programs. Of that percentage, the majority are from low-wage jobs. The fast-food workforce enrolls half of its members in public benefits programs every year.

Ann Quarles, a cook from the Hardee's on Worley Street, said she works about 30 hours per week at $8.65 per hour. She wasn't concerned about skipping her noon shift to come to Thursday's rally — she said that she needed to raise awareness of the problem so her children could have a brighter future.

"If I don't do anything, it's never going to get any better," she said.

This isn't the first time that groups have rallied for, in their words, a "living wage." Worker advocacy groups started their efforts to build public support a year ago with similar rallies and walkouts around the country. On Aug. 29, community members in Columbia met outside of the Hardee's at the corner of Providence and Locust streets to protest fast-food workers' low wages.

Columbia's turnout for Thursday's rallies was small compared to other cities. According to The Associated Press about 100 protesters in New York City blew whistles and beat drums inside a McDonald's at 6:30 a.m. to push for higher wages.

Even with the higher turnout, chants in other cities probably sounded similar to the ones in Columbia: "Up with the wages! Yeah, yeah! Up with the workers! Yeah, yeah!"

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