Fast-food workers calling for a raise demonstrate in Tampa

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Fast-food workers in Tampa, St. Petersburg and more than 150 other cities across the country walked off their job today, demanding an industry-wide base wage of $15 per hour and in some cases, the right to form a union. It was the latest in what has been a series of protests across the country to raise awareness about the low pay for such workers and their demand for more money, organized by the Fight for $15 campaign.

Approximately 75 people demonstrated shortly after noon today in front of a Burger King on Fowler Avenue in North Tampa. Advocates for a $15 per hour also demonstrated at 6 a.m. in front of a Burger King off 34th Street in St. Pete.

Roderick Livingston works at a Taco Bell in South St. Pete, making $7.93 an hour, while working between 25-30 hours per week. “Any type of increase right now would be great,” he said today above the din of chants made by the protesters in Tampa. He said that calls for the minimum wage to be raised  to $10.10 by President Obama and here in Florida by Miami Democratic House Representative Dwight Bullard would be “a little bit better, but anything would be good.”

Shetaih Brown, 23, works at the Taco Bell right across the street from the Burger King she was protesting in front of on Fowler Avenue. She makes $8.10 an hour, while working only 20 hours a week. “They can afford it,” she says when reminded that fast-food companies say that if they were to raise their wage to $10.10 an hour would impact their businesses, forcing them to raise prices on their products. “They’ve done it in Seattle. They’ve done it overseas, and they’ve done it in other states as well,” she said in response to the industry’s pushback.

The Fight For $15 campaign has been fueled by organized labor. Though joining a union wasn’t the focal point at today’s rally in Tampa, Joe Leach, an Orlando-based security guard with the Industrial Workers of the World, said, “We want the workers to organize and to be able to feel they have a voice on the job. Somebody who will stand for them.” He said it’s a long-term effort of 5-10 years to begin organizing fast-food workers into unions, but said the first step is to create worker center affiliates in major cities across the country to spark local protest activity and generate attention. Those centers are already receiving funding from major national unions like the SEIU and Unite Here.

Also participating today was Cheryl Schroeder from the Central Labor Council, who expressed bewilderment on why Congress can’t come together to raise the minimum wage to at least $10.10, which gets across-the-board support in national polls.

“I don’t really know why that’s not going on, ” she said. “Our Congress has been totally inept, and not been able to do anything collaboratively lately. But there is growing recognition that more money that floats into people’s pockets fuels our local economy. More disposable income means that more businesses can stay open, and they in turn can pay their workers more. So it’s a growing recognition and as things like this build momentum, I think it’s becoming more and more on the lips and in the minds of the average person.”

Schroeder and others also pointed to Denmark as a beacon to emulate. There fast-food workers earn the equivalent of $20 an hour, two and a half times what many fast-food workers earn in the United States.

Florida’s minimum wage is $7.93 an hour, above the national figure of $7.25 an hour. Tipped workers earn just $4.91 an hour in Florida, but that’s better than the national tipped work minimum wage of $2.93 an hour.

In a statement, a spokesperson for Burger King wrote to SaintPetersBlog

“As a corporation, Burger King Corp. (BKC) respects the rights of all workers. For decades, BURGER KING® restaurants have provided an entry point into the workforce for millions of workers, including many of the system’s franchisees who began their careers working at local BURGER KING® restaurants. BKC and the franchisees who independently own and operate almost 100 percent of BURGER KING® restaurants support and invest in the thousands of restaurant team members across the system. In addition, through the BURGER KING McLAMORE(SM) Foundation, BURGER KING® employees and their families in North America are eligible for college scholarships to encourage further growth and education.”

Mitch Perry has been a reporter with Extensive Enterprises since November of 2014. Previously, he served as five years as the political editor of the alternative newsweekly Creative Loafing. He also was the assistant news director with WMNF 88.5 FM in Tampa from 2000-2009, and currently hosts MidPoint, a weekly talk show, on WMNF on Thursday afternoons. He began his reporting career at KPFA radio in Berkeley. He's a San Francisco native who has now lived in Tampa for 15 years and can be reached at mitch.perry@floridapolitics.com.