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 the 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 in a projected 50 cities who will be striking Thursday, in what fast-food worker organizers are billing as the largest fast food strike in American history. It’s 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 has Jemes worried about when it starts to gets 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 significantly 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.