A wave of chants filled the courtyard in front of the National Civil Rights Museum as a group of more than 50 protesters rounded the corner from the hot asphalt of Main Street. Their signs demanded $15 an hour and the ability to organize a union.
“You can’t survive on $7.25,” they chanted.
The strike Thursday afternoon started in the morning after workers walked out and rallied at McDonald’s on Union Avenue. Memphis joined cities like Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, Denver and New York City to participate in a nationwide strike against fast food companies.
As protesters gathered together in front of the museum, organizers brought speakers forward. City councilman Myron Lowery endorsed the fair-wage protest, speaking to protesters about his support for alleviating poverty and raising wages in Memphis.
“The city has an obligation to take care of its people — all of its people,” Lowery said.
Reverend Dr. Herbert Lester of the Asbury United Methodist Church also spoke to the protesters, explaining the importance of organizing together.
“Today, we make history,” he said.
After the speakers, a handful of protesters used a megaphone to thank God for allowing them and the workers surrounding them to be there.
Bjorn Carlsson, a civil engineering graduate student at the University of Memphis, said workers are not able to support their family on the current wages given by companies like McDonald’s.
“You shouldn’t have to work two and three jobs to live,” Carlsson said. “Memphis is a poor town in a right-to-work state.”
In studies about poverty in America, Massachusetts Institute of Technology uses a living wage calculator to determine how much an individual needs to earn to support his or her family, depending on location.
According to that calculator, in Shelby County, one adult needs to earn at least $9.76 per hour to pay for all expenses, which include food, housing and transportation. One adult with one child needs to earn $18.18 per hour.
In July, McDonald’s came under fire from critics when it released a budget planning website for its employees with Visa. In the sample budget given, McDonald’s assumes workers will have a second job. The first job—presumably the fast food company—is given as a salary of $1,105 per month. The expenses given are for the basics—such as mortgage, car payments and utilities—are totaled at $1,310.
The group of workers also stressed it wasn’t just about McDonald’s. According to organizers, workers of Taco Bell, Church’s Chicken, Subway and Krystal’s were among those in the protesting ranks. Alongside the workers, groups like the Mid-South Peace and Justice Center, Workers Interfaith Network, the Progressive Student Alliance at the U of M and United Campus Workers joined the protesters in solidarity.
“They’re lifting up their community (and) building more power for themselves,” Carlsson said, looking out into the crowd. “Fast food workers are people too.”
This article was previously published in August 2013.