Ray Duckler: Fast food workers demand $15 an hour

Last modified: 2/7/2016 12:51:52 AM
Money makes the world go around.

It also stops traffic in Manchester, makes the city’s cops mad, disrupts a local fast food restaurant, scares kids, and makes you wonder what we, as a country, should do about the minimum wage.

Fifteen dollars an hour? That is the question, and you can bet voters will have that number on their minds when they cast their primary votes on Tuesday.

I walked into the teeth of the issue Saturday on a stretch of South Willow Street, where a 200-person protest was staged to coincide with the Republican debate.

Many of the participants walked off their fast food restaurant jobs for the day because they earn the current minimum, $7.25 an hour, or slightly more.

They believed they’d keep their jobs, through strength in numbers.

The movement to raise minimum pay to $15 has seeped across state borders by osmosis. It started in New York City, on Dec. 12, 2012, to be exact, when a man named Kendall Fells organized a strike by 200 workers from 30 low-wage stores.

“People said this was crazy, that we’d never get off the ground,” said Fells, who travels across the country, stirring deep emotions within working people. “Now we’ve made a change in 276 cities across the United States.”

To be sure, it was just a matter of time before New Hampshire, with its primary white-hot under the national spotlight, followed suit.

Law enforcement, I think, was caught off guard by the passion involved. How else to explain the complete lack of police presence at Wendy’s, where it all began?

Only after protesters, dozens of them, entered the restaurant and began shouting and chanting and jumping, led by a man with a bullhorn, were police called by the manager.

“Can’t survive on $7.25!” and “Show me 15!” were two of their favorite slogans. A little girl snuggled into her mother’s arms in fear, and a man named Chris brought his tray of food to the counter to get his money back.

He received a refund, $18.06.

“These people should be arrested, and you can quote me on that,” said Chris, who would not reveal his last name. “Look at that poor little child over there. I have a child here, too, and we can’t eat this, and now it’s cold. This is illegal.”

True, according to Officer Pete Boylan, who came shortly after the crowd had left. “From what we heard, this is disorderly conduct,” Boylan said. “I’m here because this is my shift, but there’s no one here now, so my work is done.”

The police, though, had plenty of work ahead of them. The crowd moved across the street to a Burger King parking lot, where Officer Brian Karoul told me they were trespassing. No arrests were made, though.

From there, the protesters moved along the busy street in single file, trailed by a police SUV and cruiser, each moving maybe 5 miles per hour, watching, shadowing, warning them to move onto the snow-covered sidewalk.

They cut left at a light and stopped traffic, and they doubled back toward the start. They congregated in a crafts store parking lot and the chanting picked up, led by the guy with the bullhorn, a union organizer from Boston.

“Fired up!” he said, and the crowd answered, “Can’t take no more!”

“Fired up!”

“Can’t take no more!”

“This is modern day slavery,” the man said. “There are 65 million of us who don’t make $15 an hour. If 65 million people voted one way, what would happen in the election?”

We’ll know more on Tuesday, primary day. Right now we know the Republicans are dead set against such a large increase. On the Democratic side, Bernie Sanders, far ahead of Hillary Clinton in state polls, thinks it’s a good idea, while Clinton believes a one-size-fits-all solution is not the answer.

What’s fair? Does a high school kid living with mom and dad deserve the same minimum rate as an abandoned single parent of two who’s pushing 30? Should the wage be based on an area’s cost of living? Does someone working full time necessarily deserve a house and a car and a savings account?

Proponents make an obvious case, a human case, that they can better care for their families, and the need for welfare will be reduced.

Conversely, what would the change do to small businesses? What would it do to the unemployment rate?

Megan Jensen, 26, works at Kentucky Fried Chicken and rents a room in Manchester for $450 per month. She’s separated from her husband and has three small children, ages 4 years to 10 months.

She earns $8 an hour, taking home between $250 and $300 in a good week, $150 to $250 in a slow one. From that, there’s rent, babysitting costs, baby formula, clothing, food. She’s got her eye on a 2004 Dodge Caravan but can’t afford insurance just yet.

“It’s very hard, very stressful,” Jensen told me. “I can afford an apartment by myself with what I make, but I never have any extra money.”

Jen Cole of Pittsfield is married with three daughters, ages 17 to 21.

She’s an educated, articulate woman, with a degree from Granite State College. She works at All Aboard Preschool Childcare in Nottingham. She helps form a foundation for kids, a base of confidence with the outside world.

She earns $13.25 an hour and has been in the field for nearly 20 years.

When her husband was diagnosed with throat cancer three years ago and needed time off, the family struggled. He missed six months of work, then returned part time.

“I could not survive on my own income, and we had to rely on the community and family,” Cole said. “We had to decide which bills to pay to put food on the table and a roof over our heads. We live week to week.”

I asked Cole who she’d vote for Tuesday.

“The person fighting for our citizens,” Cole said. “That is who I will vote for.”

(Ray Duckler can be reached at 369-3304 or rduckler@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @rayduckler.)

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