The Minimum Wage Worker Strikes Back

Across the U.S., fast food workers are asking: “What am I worth?”

At 24, Patrick is a fast food veteran. Over the past eight years, he has worked at seven different franchises. He started out at America’s Incredible Pizza Company at the NASCAR Speedpark in St. Louis, Missouri, the city where he grew up and still lives. He thought a fast food job would keep him on his feet while he figured out his life. He did not know it would become his life. Now he is captive to the hustle, always moving and going nowhere.

“You pick up something easy to get stable,” he says. “And on your quest to get stable, you end up getting stuck. You either fall or you stay where you are. Or you fall staying where you are.”

Patrick has spent one third of his life working in fast food restaurants, and most of that time wondering how to get out. Between 2007 and 2008 he worked at Subway, then Popeye’s Chicken, then Red Lobster. No place paid above minimum wage no matter how long he stayed or how hard he worked, so in 2008 he took a job as a waiter at Romano’s Macaroni Grill. He hoped that a more formal chain would pay more. They started him at three dollars an hour plus tips. After two years of hoping, he quit.

His next job was at Arby’s, where the manager assured him all workers get a raise. They did not. In 2011, he took a second job at Chipotle. For months, Patrick worked from 9:00 am — 3:00 pm at Arby’s and 4:00 pm — 11:00 pm at Chipotle. Some days, he worked 13 hours. Some weeks, he had no days off. The commutes were long, expensive and necessary. Patrick lives in an economically struggling area of St. Louis’s North County with few job opportunities. Like most who live there, he is African-American.

Patrick would take the bus to the Arby’s in Kirkwood, an affluent St. Louis suburb, then catch another bus to the Chipotle in the suburb of University City, where he served burritos to rich students from nearby Washington University. He anxiously watched the tip jar, wondering if he would get enough for bus fare home. Sometimes he did not and walked for miles. The strain caught up with him, and he left Arby’s to work at Chipotle “full time” — or the closest to full time a fast food worker is allowed.

“I expected a great difference when I started at Chipotle, but there was none whatsoever,” he says. Chipotle advertises itself as “food with integrity”. The organic vegetables Patrick chops, the steel tables he shines — all promote a new fast food model: forward-thinking, considerate, responsible. Except to the workers.

“Each place I worked at is unique,” he says. “But they are no different in terms of pay.

Patrick still works at Chipotle. After three years, he has gotten a raise of 80 cents. He now makes $8.80 per hour, the most money he has made in his life. He is allowed to work up to 35 hours per week, but is usually assigned fewer, and he is never assigned enough to live on. If a worker gets 40 hours per week, he tells me, the manager could lose his bonus. Patrick feels sorry for the managers, some of whom sympathize with his plight. They are often not paid more than the workers and load up on hours to compensate.

“At Arby’s the manager salary was $7.35 an hour,” he recalls. $7.35 was the Missouri minimum wage, raised in late 2013 to $7.50. “My manager worked 70 hours a week like a legit slave. He worked hard.

Patrick is part of an industry in which working like a “legit slave” is an aspiration. A 70-hour work week means you make enough to survive. In St. Louis, fast food is a billion dollar industry, but neither workers nor managers see much of that profit.

Patrick and I are sitting in a coffee house near Chipotle going over his work history. He looks at my list of restaurants and dates and wages.

“I’ve never seen it written out like that,” he says, with an expression between a wince and a smile. “That’s something.”

I ask Patrick whether experience counts in fast food.

“Experience definitely counts,” he says. “Experience counts because they can save money on training you. They don’t have to teach you anything, you already know.”

“But does experience count in terms of pay?”

He is quiet.

“Experience counts in terms of their pay,” he says. “But not for mine.”

It was not easy to get an interview with Patrick, or any of the St. Louis fast food workers with whom I spoke.

Fast-food workers begin each week with uncertainty. They do not know how many hours they will work or when those hours will be. They do not know whether they will come up with the cash — and it is always cash — to make it to the job. They do not know if the lights will still be on when they get home. They do not know where, in a few months, home will be. They hunt for cheaper or easier or safer, knowing that to combine them is impossible.

When I ask workers if I can call with follow-up questions, they tell me they no longer have a phone or worry about wasting prepaid minutes. Meetings are canceled because the car runs out of gas, because someone’s child needs to be watched, because an unexpected opportunity arises — extra hours on the job, or a chance to do some paid yard work for a neighbor.

The paradox of poverty is that tomorrow is unpredictable but the future never changes.

The word I hear over and over is “maintain.” Krystal, a 23-year-old Taco Bell employee working 25-35 hours a week, tells me that for six months she had no gas or heat in her apartment, because she could not afford it on $7.65 per hour. She took cold showers and boiled water to bathe her six-year-old son. Now nine months pregnant with her second child, Krystal is scrambling to prepare for the new baby. She and her boyfriend, a Pizza Hut delivery driver, have a “money bag” where they put spare change in the hope of paying for laundry and diapers. I ask how she handles it all.

“We maintain, we maintain,” she says, sipping on ice chips to ease the pregnancy pain. “We have lights. We have a roof over our heads. For now.”

“Maintain” is both what you do to survive and what you survive to do.

Patrick frames “maintaining” as an aspiration. “A person who has to work with the struggle — how do you expect them to pretend everything is fine and dandy?” he says, gesturing in exasperation. “The second you take off your apron, it’s not all peachy keen. It’s fake. It’s all fake! You want me to follow the rules? All I ask for is a livable wage, something to maintain.

Fast-food workers often refer to “the struggle” — not in a dramatic way, but as a synonym for life. The struggle is what people did not know about, they tell me. The struggle is what people cannot see, even though the struggle is happening right in front of them.

“If I had more money, there wouldn’t be the struggle,” Jenina, a 20-year-old McDonald’s worker, explains. “I would set a budget and it would be a good budget. I wouldn’t have to worry about paying rent or utilities. I’d still help my momma. I’d be able to get a bus pass. I’d go back to school. I’d do a lot.”

Jenina dropped out of nursing school after her mother lost her job, because she needed the tuition money to pay bills. Her income from McDonald’s, where she started working as a high school senior, helps support her mother and younger sister. Patrick’s Chipotle income helps support his mother, a makeup artist who has struggled to find steady work since the recession. Krystal’s Taco Bell income helps support her son; her sister, who lives with her and works at Jack in the Box; and now, her newborn daughter.

Every worker I interview is supporting someone: an unemployed parent, a child, a sibling, a friend. Most of their friends and family members work in fast food or other service industries. Everyone is in their twenties or older. All but one is African-American.

They dream of different jobs. The women want to be nurses, the men want to work in the automotive or culinary industries. But no one can pay for training when they cannot save for day to day, much less for the future.

As a result, fast food workers are turning to activism: not out of ideological motives, but because overturning the economic system seems more feasible than purchasing the credentials for a new career.

Over the past year, Patrick, Krystal and Jenina have joined Show Me 15, a local advocacy group that is part of the national movement to unionize workers and raise the minimum wage to fifteen dollars an hour. Show Me 15 started recruiting at restaurants in early 2013, but most workers told me they heard about the group through a relative in the industry. Low-wage jobs are a family affair, a pattern many seek to break.

“My family is very proud and supportive,” Jenina says of her participation in Show Me 15. “They’re like, ‘Stand up for what you believe in, Jenina. Because you gonna make it good for the next generation that’s coming up.’ Like my niece, when she come up, she’s not going to have to worry about the struggle. Or my little cousins. They’ll have a decent pay.”

Minimum wage work in the United States is no longer a job. It is a social position, passed on from generation to generation. The idea that their own relatives, their own children, would end up in the same fast food jobs they loathed was viewed as so inevitable that workers never remarked upon it directly. But it emerged over and over in casual conversation.

It is February and Krystal is telling me she and her six-year-old son may be heading to Kansas City with her boyfriend. He heard there were better jobs out west. He might be able to get carpentry work, or drive a truck. Krystal is not sure what she will do. She dreams of going to nursing school, but suspects she will “transfer” to another Taco Bell to make ends meet. Her baby is due in a few days. I ask how she sees her family’s future.

“I see…” she says, and pauses.

“My son, for whatever reason, he wants to work at Taco Bell when he gets older. And I just hope that when it does come time for him and the other younger kids to get a job working in fast food that they can have peace of mind. I hope they can say, ‘Hey, I can work here, I can make enough, pay what I need to pay, take care of my family.’ I hope he doesn’t have to go to work and be judged by anybody.”

St. Louis is one of the cheapest cities in America. In May 2013, it became the third U.S. city to launch a fast food strike, following New York in November 2012 and Chicago in April 2013. When McDonald’s released a model budget for fast food workers, it was derided as “ridiculous” and “hilariously obtuse” — except in St. Louis.

“When I lived in St. Louis, my roommate and I each paid $425 per month for our comfortable two-bedroom, two-bathroom apartment in one of the city’s nicer neighborhoods,” wrote the Washington Post’s Timothy Lee, adding that living off a fast food salary was “completely plausible in typical U.S. cities.”

St. Louis is indeed a typical U.S. city. It is the sort of typical U.S. city so rarely included in national media coverage that the idea that it is easy to be poor here — that it is easy to be poor — is accepted without question. If you have social capital, education, and a job that pays you enough to live above the poverty line, St. Louis is a bargain. But if you grew up in poverty in St. Louis, if you bear the brunt of St. Louis’s burdens, then you cannot be a player in a poor man’s town. You are its discarded casualty.

Most of the workers I spoke with were, like Lee, paying about $400-500 per month in rent. Unlike Lee, they lacked a middle-class background, a college education, and the opportunity to move up. A future requires a promise, a down payment. Theirs was the future in which no one would invest.

When I tell Patrick about Lee’s comments, he scoffs. He had seen the McDonald’s budget and viewed it as insulting. “The only tip McDonald’s can give me is to starve myself,” he says. “I’ve tried everything. You want me to go through hell to try and get by? That makes no sense.”

Patrick is dismissive of the idea that raising the minimum wage would hurt business growth. “They say, ‘The wages go up, the cost of living goes up’. But that’s already happened. The cost of living has gone way, way up. The only thing that stayed the same was the wages. They really need to come up with another line.”

In 2007, Missouri’s minimum wage was raised from $5.15 to $5.85, and has since increased gradually to $7.50. This is a bit better than the federal rate, which has steadily lost buying power since its 1968 peak. But it still is not enough to live on. Since 2007, rent in St. Louis has risen 18%, accompanied by hikes in utilities and food costs. Everything is rising, including the number of poorly paid positions: in St. Louis, 90% of jobs created since the recession ended have been in low-wage industries.

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In May 2013, Show Me 15 (then STL 735) held their first protest, down the street from the Chipotle where Patrick works. Photo credit: Sarah Kendzior

“Anyone who has ever struggled with poverty knows how extremely expensive it is to be poor,” James Baldwin famously wrote. In January, Patrick moved back in with his mother to help save on rent. Before that, he lived alone, paying $425 per month. But he made as little as $500 per month, depending on how many hours he was given. Utilities were $100-200 per month. A monthly bus pass is $72, an amount he never had, so he ended up paying more than $72 per month in single ride fares.

Poverty is a punishment for the crime of living. In St. Louis, it is a shared sentence.

St. Louis is an anomaly for large American cities in that the actual city has only about 300,000 residents. Most of the metropolitan area’s nearly three million people live in the surrounding St. Louis County. The county consists of dozens of suburbs ranging from poor to opulent, and its regions are designated by their relation to the city — for example, North County.

To follow a fast food worker’s commute is to trace St. Louis’s long history of racial segregation, economic decline, and fear. Most workers with whom I spoke grew up and still live in North County towns whose populations changed dramatically over the past three decades: a phenomenon one observer bluntly described as “ghetto spillover”. Once the suburbs of white flight, these towns are now the destinations of black flight, as struggling African-American families seek a safe and good life outside the crumbling terrain of the inner city.

St. Louis residents are defensive about the city’s reputation as one of the most dangerous in the U.S., and for good reason. St. Louis is civic-minded and family-friendly, and violent crime is rare outside certain areas — where it is rampant.

The truism that St. Louis is “not dangerous” belies a darker truth: the people for whom it is dangerous are not supposed to matter.

Drive through northern St. Louis and here are some of the things you find: A 12-bedroom, 8-bathroom 19th century mansion with a carriage house on the market for $185,000, the price falling every year. A 57-acre forest in the center of the city where the Pruitt-Igoe housing complex, demolished in 1972 after decades of degradation, once stood. Kinloch, the oldest African-American community incorporated in Missouri: population 6,000 in 1960, population 299 in 2010. Houses with no doors or windows and the pipes torn out of the walls. Houses that are frames because someone stole and sold the bricks. Houses with people still living in them, wondering what will happen next. The average life expectancy in North St. Louis is lower than that of Iraq. Almost everyone in North St. Louis is black.

There are few functional businesses in North St. Louis. Drive out of the city limits to the fringes of North County, where many of the fast food workers live, and things start to look up. Next to the decaying buildings are signs of life: a payday loan store, a title loan store, a dollar store, a pawn shop. The economy is poor because the people are poor: possessions, here, are not what you own but what you trade to survive.

St. Louis is a typical U.S. city in that it is many cities in one. Fast food workers take the bus to the nicer areas, where the businesses are, where the people with money are, away from where they live. They look out the window and watch opportunity pass them by.

When Patrick was twelve years old, he came home from school and found the car packed up. His mother was standing outside their home in Kansas City, telling them they had to go. She was leaving his stepfather and they were moving to St. Louis. Patrick left “a nice neighborhood where kids could play outside” and woke up the next day “in the hood”. That day was September 11, 2001. The world was crashing in around him.

Patrick had moved to Berkeley, a North County town bordering the bottomed-out city of Kinloch. In the 1980s, the expansion of the St. Louis airport swallowed much of Kinloch, leading to an abrupt, massive depopulation and accompanying surge in crime. Many residents fled to Berkeley, which in turn experienced an increase in violence and poverty. Berkeley was a different world for Patrick. Fighting was common at his school and he was bullied.

“They went after me because I did not talk like them, I did not act like them,” he says. He struggled with personal issues that are no one’s business but his own. I ask why he dropped out and left home when he was 16.

“Let’s just say,” he says, sighing, “that I could not be myself there.”

Patrick regrets leaving high school, but wishes a decision he made as a teenager did not define the rest of his life. He wants to complete his education, but he is stuck.

“It has been hard to prepare for my GED while working in fast food,” he says. “Reading is not an issue, but math is not my forte.” But the hardest thing about the GED is paying for it. One day I mentioned to Patrick how the price of the GED had doubled, nationally, to $120. His face fell.

“Oh my God, why?” he asked. “It’s like they want to make it harder for people to excel.” I could see him calculating how many Chipotle hours equaled the cost of the test. Later we learned that Missouri had replaced the GED with the cheaper HiSET exam, but it was still $50: a day’s wages.

About a third of the fast food workers with whom I spoke dropped out of high school. Most are women who left when they became pregnant, and had worked in fast food ever since. In February, I visited the North County home of Alisha, a 26-year-old Wendy’s worker, Show Me 15 activist, and mother of three. She told me her “choice” to drop out was no choice at all.

“Companies think a person who didn’t finish is a certain kind of person, and they don’t want that kind,” Alisha says. “But I had to pick and choose between going to school and making money to take care of my kids. Of course I’m going to choose my kids.”

Now she wonders how to drop back in. Fast food jobs are among the few that do not require a high school diploma. Like Krystal and Jenina, Alisha wants to go to nursing school, but struggles with steps along the way.

“I don’t know how they think we can pay for that,” she says of the high school equivalency test. “How would we have the extra money for that when we can’t afford everything else?”

She notes that her hourly wage of $7.50 is less than a Wendy’s combo meal: “I make less than the Baconator.”

Working in fast food prompts absurd calculations. Your hourly wage is less than a combo meal. Rent costs more than a full months’ work. Every hour, dozens of customers come in, buying hundreds of dollars of food. But your wages do not change. Instead, they often go down abruptly.

“Labor is high” is the dreaded mantra of fast food. When a worker hears “labor is high”, it means they may get sent home early, losing a precious $7.50 or more.

In fast food parlance, “labor” is not “people”. Labor is the bottom line, the first thing to be cut to save money for corporate. When I ask the workers where the money goes, they say it goes “to the top”, but no one is sure where the top is. They just know it is a place they never see.

Fast food is disparaged for being cheap and disposable. Its workers are hired because they are seen as the same.

Patrick is behind the counter at Chipotle, chatting with a customer, making eye contact while making change. He hands out the orders in eco-friendly brown bags, telling everyone they should have a great day. Patrick is charming behind the register and quick on the floor. He is in constant motion, ringing up orders and wiping tables. He is perpetually smiling. He calls this “faking the funk”.

“You got to do what you got to do,” he says. “You got to fake the funk. People are going to test you, and your job is to bite your lip. That’s how this world is. People can’t express how they feel.”

That is Patrick inside Chipotle: cautious and conscientious, respectful of the duties of his job even as he holds the industry in question. The first time I saw Patrick outside Chipotle was different. It was May 2013 and the first strike led by Show Me 15 — then called STL 735, in reference to the then $7.35 minimum wage — was being held.

A large crowd had gathered — the workers mostly black, the crowd mixed. The workers chanted “We can’t survive on $7.35” while wearing signs, borrowed from the civil rights movement, proclaiming “I am a man.” Religious leaders gave speeches on dignity and community. A local hip-hop artist named Thelonius Kryptonite rapped about rights and respect.

Then Patrick spoke in public for the first time. He told the crowd about his inability to pay his bills, about his desire to have money to give back to the community.

“That was a cool day. When I got out there and spoke, I said what needed to be said,” he recalls. “I knew I wasn’t the only one going through this. A lot of people are tired and want to do something about it. People want to help each other — they are demanding a change.”

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St. Louis fast food workers demonstrate in front of McDonald’s in March 2014. Photo credit: Sarah Kendzior

In December 2013, Show Me 15 joined the fast food strikes taking place in over 100 cities across the U.S., the largest coordinated strike to date. The workers picketed St. Louis, moving from venue to venue: a serf rebellion at White Castle and Burger King.

Dressed in black “Show Me 15” hoodies and hats, they filled the seats and counters until a crowd had gathered. Then they rose in unison, stomping and clapping, chanting slogans and walking out the door, the tinny wail of corporate Muzak trailing behind. At each outlet, they encouraged their colleagues behind the counter to join them. Most greeted them warmly but demurred. By then, Patrick had been working with the movement for months, trying to bring others into the fold.

“We have power in people, but a lot of people are scared because of pressure,” he says. “‘If you do this, you get fired.’ People don’t know about laws and the freedom to protest and organize. They like the idea, but they’re also like, ‘I don’t know if I can do this, I got bills to pay…’ And I’m like, ‘How much worse can it get?’

“They know what they think they need to know,” he continues. “They have always worked, and they have overlooked these rights, they don’t dig deeper. They don’t read the fine print.”

“Did you read the fine print?”

“I didn’t at first, but then I did some studying.”

Show Me 15 and the other fast food protest groups flout traditional labor tactics. Their strikes are rare and fleeting, lasting a day at most, because a long-term strike would have no effect in an industry that views workers as interchangeable and disposable. “Strikes” are designed to get media attention, but more than that, they are designed to get the attention of other workers.

For a generation of young Americans — not only low-wage workers, but higher wage as well — “union” is a foreign concept. Unions are vestiges of the past, largely obliterated before they were born. The feasibility of a fast food union is debatable given high turnover and corporate resistance. But it is the broader meaning of unions that interests the activists of Show Me 15.

“I don’t know why anyone wouldn’t want a union,” Alisha, the Wendy’s worker and mother of three, says. “You got people who will stand up for you, who will support you. Why would anyone not want that? Instead of being all on your own, you’ve got people who will protect you.”

“We’re just fighting for a union, for people to have our backs,” Krystal, the Taco Bell worker and mother of a six-year-old and a newborn, explains. “Right now when we get fired, we just get fired. We’re fighting for people to go and ask, ‘Why did she get fired, what was she doing that was inappropriate?’ We’re fighting for the right to fight for ourselves.”

“Why would you settle for less when you can make a change? Why would you settle for less when you think you deserve more?” Jenina, the 20-year-old McDonalds worker, asks. “Why would you just sit there and let them take and you keep on giving? They’re like, that’s all you deserve, that’s all you need. So why not stand up for what you believe in? It’s just history repeating itself, and we’re just standing up for what we believe in.”

Most of the hundreds of workers who have joined Show Me 15 are African-American, reflecting the demographics of St. Louis’s low-wage work force. Other branches have different demographics — Fight For 15, Chicago’s branch, often publishes in Spanish to reach the Hispanic population. In other cities, many workers are white. Movement campaigns largely avoid blatant discussion of race in favor of a focus on their workers’ shared plight, letting pictures of the diverse protesters speak for themselves.

But the rhetoric of Show Me 15 draws from the civil rights movement, to which many workers make comparisons. As pundits debate the existence of a black “culture of poverty”, black St. Louis workers discuss the values — dignity, community, pride — that poverty-wage work is designed to destroy. At meetings, they have discussed how Martin Luther King’s vision was not just about racial justice, but economic justice, and how the two are linked. Some said it was the first time they had heard that part of the message.

“Do you have a message for the public?” I ask Patrick.

He does.

“Support us. Stand up with us. If we use our voices and build a stronger force to get them heard, then I believe it can be done. I don’t know why companies are procrastinating. They think we’ll fade away, but we got a beat behind us — you can’t give me that!

“People need to know what it’s like,” he adds. “They know, but they don’t know.

Asked about the strikes, Patrick is outspoken and assured. Asked about his personal history, he is more wary, knowing full well how people like him — young, African-American, and poor — tend to be portrayed. The jargon of journalism is imbued with prejudice. A good article is said to “humanize” the subject, because the humanity of certain subjects is not assumed.

Minimum wage workers are used to being seen without being heard. Patrick worked fast food jobs for seven years before someone asked him to tell the public what he thought. Now he copes with scrutiny; the shift from being silenced to being a symbol. He fights to be seen as a human being, because maybe then he will be paid like one and treated like one.

In January, Missouri State Senator Jamilah Nasheed proposed a bill that would raise the state’s minimum wage to $10 an hour in 2015, and be adjusted to a cost of living index thereafter. Nasheed and her supporters are hoping to get the bill on the ballot in November 2014. A Show Me 15 organizer asked Patrick if he wanted to attend a congressional hearing on the issue, and he agreed. He was one of several workers from across the state— as well as economists and businessmen— to give a statement.

In February, Patrick went to Jefferson City, the capital of Missouri, and spoke to a room of representatives. Before he went on, he heard the representatives in the hallway talking about getting lunch at Chipotle.

I ask how his testimony went.

“I said what needed to be said,” he tells me. “I was a little nervous. But they’re just like me. They are people just like me. We are all people. We are all just trying to survive.”

“Do you think they saw you the same way — as a person, just like them?”

Patrick is quiet for a long time.

“Yes,” he says. “I mean, I’m not sure. I think so. I hope.”

Written by

Writer on politics, economy, media. Columnist for @AJEnglish. Researcher on Central Asia. Recovering academic.

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