The Fight for $15 movement started in 2012, when hundreds of fast-food employees went on strike in New York City for higher wages and a union. Since then, the movement has brought the concept of a $15 minimum wage firmly into the mainstream and won (eventual) hikes to $15 per hour—less than a true living wage in most places, yet double the federal minimum wage of $7.25—in cities, counties, blue states, and red states alike.
But fast-food workers all over the country are still working under dire circumstances, with the COVID-19 pandemic surfacing long-festering problems about wages and safety. And so the workers are still rising up. Today, McDonald’s workers in 15 cities across the country are striking. The actions are timed to the company’s annual shareholder meeting on Thursday and come hot off the heels of McDonald’s attempting to fix a “labor shortage” by offering workers at company-owned stores an entry-level wage of between $11 and $17 over the next several months.
Precious Cole is one of those striking workers. Cole has been working in fast-food joints since she was 15 years old; she’s now 34. During the pandemic, she has worked at three different restaurants in Durham, North Carolina: Freddy’s Frozen Custard and Steakburgers, Wendy’s, and since last month, a McDonald’s franchise, after she got recruited out of the Wendy’s drive-thru window.
Cole has been involved in various labor actions at her workplaces over the course of the pandemic, mostly over safety protocols, and on Wednesday she’s going back out on strike for a $15 minimum wage and a union. Cole talked to Discourse Blog earlier this week about the strike, her experience working through the pandemic, what she believes are the real reason behind the labor shortage.
This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Discourse Blog: How long have you been working at McDonald’s?
Precious Cole: Honestly, only a month. I got recruited out of the Wendy’s drive-thru to work at McDonald’s.
Discourse Blog: How long have you been working at fast food restaurants including Wendy’s and McDonald’s?
Precious Cole: Since I was 15 years old. My first job was Burger King…I just turned 34 at the beginning of this month.
Discourse Blog: There’s a lot of talk about a labor shortage right now, and McDonald’s put out that statement saying they were going to raise their minimum wage to $11 per hour. Is your store having trouble finding people?
Precious Cole: From my experience, yes. Since I’ve been working, I’ve literally been working 12-hour shifts, because people don’t want to come to work and we don’t have enough people. We even did a hiring event last Thursday, I believe.
I just believe it’s these companies not paying enough, paying poverty wages, and people are just sick and tired of getting paid so little. Especially with the cost of living going up, with this coronavirus that’s going on, people lost their jobs. And it’s crazy that they lost these jobs and they don’t want to even try to get another job because these companies don’t care about their workers.
Discourse Blog: What’s your experience been like at work with health and safety? Have your workplaces been following regulations and everything?
Precious Cole: I had two jobs at once at one point. And one job followed regulations, the other job was very iffy on their regulations. And that led to a movement and us making sure that everybody in that company is safe now.
The [iffy] company was Freddy’s. One of our coworkers went to the hospital because she couldn’t taste her food…she came back to work the next day. And the day after, we got a call saying her hospital record came back and she has coronavirus, and you have to either take a two-week quarantine or go get the swab stuck up your nose. [Cole and her coworkers went on strike in September and then again in October; after the second, the owners of the Freddy’s franchise agreed to pay for COVID-19 testing as well as 10 days of paid sick leave for employees who test positive.)
Discourse Blog: What has dealing with customers been like during the pandemic?
Precious Cole: So in my experience, it has been a lot harder. Like I said, I’ve been in fast food half my life, so I’ve seen and dealt with everything imaginable. But now, you know, they just seem so angry. You get one or two that say, “Thank you for being here, for helping us out, for working during COVID.” But then you have the other customers where—it’s store policy that you have to wear a mask. “Well, it’s my right not to wear a mask.” And I’m like, “I can’t serve you.” They get ignorant and rude and throw stuff on us.
It’s a whole lot worse now, because I believe people are angered. Half of these people don’t have jobs, or they do have jobs that are paying them little to nothing. People try to feed their families and have gas in their cars, they’re trying to make it to work. There are some people like me who haven’t even gotten stimulus money yet, still waiting on the government.
Discourse Blog: Oh, wow.
Precious Cole: I’m literally living paycheck to paycheck until the government decides, “Hey, let’s give Precious her money that she’s owed and deserves.” I just think they’re angry.
Discourse Blog: Are there any examples that stick out to you from the past year?
Precious Cole: When I was a manager at Wendy’s, I was doing my manager things, making sure my coworkers were OK. No offense, but I care more about my employees than I do the customers. Without the employees, there are no customers, there’s no store. So I have to keep my coworkers safe.
So one day, I come around the corner and I hear one of my coworkers arguing with the customer and I see a large drink in his hand, and I got the intuition. I said, “Oh God,” because it wasn’t the first time anything’s ever been thrown on me. And as I’m walking up to try to defuse the situation, a whole large cup of lemonade comes through the window. They hit my coworker square in the face, broke her glasses. And in the after-effect of somebody chucking something, it hit three of us. We were dressed, from head to toe, in sticky lemonade. And we still had to work the rest of the night because it was no going home.
Everybody’s going through something. You don’t know what these people are going through and I understand that, but it’s like, you don’t have to throw stuff on us. People belittle us because we work in fast food, but it’s like, OK, you’re here. So if we weren’t here, you wouldn’t be here.
Discourse Blog: How many hours a week do you have to work to be able to pay your bills?
Precious Cole: I would have to say probably a little bit more than 40, maybe between 40 and 50. To pay rent, I have a car note, I’ve got to eat…I live with my elderly mother and that is a big concern for me. She’s vaccinated but about two weeks ago, she was in the hospital. And not trying to think morbidly, but my mom wants me to be OK when she’s gone, and as of right now I wouldn’t be OK. I wouldn’t be able to pay the rent, and the car note, and feed myself, and other necessities like gas in the car.
Discourse Blog: So how did you get involved in the Fight for $15 in the first place?
Precious Cole: The Freddy’s thing. One of my coworkers started talking about this movement she was in and I got interested, and then the coronavirus thing happened [at Freddy’s] and I shoved in full force.
Discourse Blog: What are you hoping to get out of the strike on Wednesday?
Precious Cole: Just that they finally listen to their workers. Not even just McDonald’s, workers all over the world, that we stand in solidarity with each other. We try to get this $15 minimum, and we know $15 is not a lot but I always say that it’s a start. Not the end, but it’s a start.
I just want to see people staying together and McDonald’s listening to their workers and not their shareholders. Something I always say is that I want to see the shareholders walk a day in our life. Pay them what they pay us and see if they can survive.
Discourse Blog: Have you seen more enthusiasm for this strike than other efforts?
Precious Cole: I honestly don’t know because the strike hasn’t happened yet. But I feel like for me, it’s gonna hold a lot of weight because I’m an actual McDonald’s worker. Before, I stood in solidarity with everybody, but now that I’m an actual McDonald’s fast food worker I can speak to some of the things that are going on. One of our Fight for $15 people told me he only makes $8 an hour and my whole mouth dropped. I was making $8 an hour at 18, 19 years old, but nowadays that’s a drop in the bucket.
Discourse Blog: Because of the pandemic and everything you told me, have you and your coworkers talked about eventually forming a union and what that might eventually look like?
Precious Cole: I started at Wendy’s trying to organize people because of what we’ve gone through over there. I tried to get them involved in Fight for 15, so some of them are still involved.
I know they have a lot to say because they say it to me when we’re at work. So I’m just like, hey, like, I have an outlet for you to express all of this stuff…I get that the majority of them are scared to lose their job and I’m trying to tell them, you’re not gonna lose a job because you’re protected; you have the right to organize. And then I’m also trying to tell them that if we form a union, you’ll definitely be protected.