Updated May 29, 2014
Latoya Jemes was working the drive-thru line at a McDonald’s in downtown Memphis one night when a man leaned out of his car window and asked if she’d be interested in taking part in a strike.
Jemes hadn’t heard about the one-day fast-food strikes popping up in U.S. cities since last spring. But when the man, later identified as a worker organizer, showed her videos of the strikes in St. Louis and other cities, Jemes was inspired.
“I didn’t think it was possible, I felt like I could lose my job,” she said about the idea of not showing up to her shift in protest. “When I found out they couldn’t do anything about us going on strike, I feel much better about it now.”
Jemes, 24, certainly doesn't want to lose her job. She currently spends her day caring for her 2-year-old, and then drops her three kids off at her mom’s home in the evenings before going to work from 10 p.m. to 6.30 a.m. She tries to catch a little sleep, and then wakes up to do her daughter’s hair before school. “Some days I’ve been up for 48 hours,” she said.
Jemes is one of the fast-food workers who engaged in strikes and walkouts last August in nearly 60 cities, in what fast-food worker organizers billed as the largest fast food strike in American history. It was the latest effort in an ongoing strategy by unions, worker advocacy groups and community organizations to raise wages and improve working conditions in an almost entirely non-unionized industry.
The single mom could use a raise. Jemes works the night shift at McDonald’s for $7.45 an hour. After she pays rent and utilities, she says she has $40 a paycheck to spend on her three kids -- if she’s lucky. Jemes relies on food stamps, and can’t afford furniture in her home in the Whitehaven neighborhood of South Memphis. Her daughter only has a pair of sandals for shoes, which had Jemes worried about when it was going to start getting cold.
“[McDonald’s] makes billions of dollars every year,” she said. “They could pay at least $8.50 or $9.”
In response to the strikes, the National Restaurant Association, the industry’s largest trade and lobbying group, has repeatedly emphasized the tight profit margins in the fast-food industry, claiming that raising wages significantly would end up destroying jobs. The “other” NRA has flexed a lot of muscle to block state increases of the minimum wage.
Fast-food jobs, which have traditionally served as after-school work for teenagers, are now increasingly held by older American women, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. An analysis by the liberal Center for Economic and Policy Research found that more than a quarter of fast-food workers have kids to feed. But when McDonald’s launched a budgeting website in July to help its employees budget with their current wages, critics sneered that even McDonald’s was admitting its workers couldn’t survive on what they were being paid. The “sample budget” provided included a second job, no money for kids, no money for heat and $20 a month for health insurance.
Jemes wants to get a better job; it’s her childhood dream to be a registered nurse. And she hopes, when her youngest is a little older, that she’ll be able to go back to school. But as one of five kids with a single mom, she said she ended dropping out of school after the 10th grade.
“Every day was a struggle,” she said. “There was so much stress. I couldn’t focus at school like I wanted to, like I needed to. I became less interested. I just stopped going.”
While pregnant with her youngest, Jemes enrolled in a GED course and even returned to class just two days after giving birth. But even with that diploma and applying to jobs at every chance she has, Jemes can’t catch a break. “McDonald’s is hiring every day,” she said.
Jemes won’t be alone on Thursday. She said about eight other McDonald’s co-workers will be out striking with her on Thursday, but most of the workers at her McDonald's are worried. “They don’t think it’s legal,” she says about the strike. “They think there’ll be discrimination, or retaliation.”
She doesn’t expect immediate results. She expects there will be more strikes to come. But she hopes other fast food workers realize that striking is legally protected under the National Labor Relations Act.
“I just feel like everyone needs to learn their rights,” Jemes said. “If they don’t know their rights, they’ll get over on you all the time. They just think we don’t know our rights, and they take it to their advantage.”