Durham County

Prescription refills or paying the bills? Why one fast-food manager took to the streets on Labor Day

Fighting for $15 an hour in Durham

Nearly 175 people rallied in Durham on Labor Day for higher wages and union representation for fast-food and other service workers.
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Nearly 175 people rallied in Durham on Labor Day for higher wages and union representation for fast-food and other service workers.

Wanda Coker doesn’t think workers should have to choose between paying their medical bills and keeping the lights on.

So the Burger King manager was behind the microphone Monday as 175 people rallied in downtown Durham for a $15 per hour wage and unions for fast-food and other service-industry workers.

The day started at dawn as a group rallied outside the McDonald’s on Guess Road. At noon, a larger crowd rallied on CCB Plaza before marching to the downtown McDonald’s where they briefly demonstrated on the sidewalk and in the street.

Coker, who started working for $5.25 an hour at Wendy’s in 1991, says she doesn’t worry about her job when she speaks out. And she doesn’t buy the argument that raising pay will outprice fast-food customers.

“That’s – how can I put it? – a load of bull,” she said.

“If you would stand in the lobby of a fast-food restaurant, (you would see) we’re the ones spending the money,” she said. “If we had more money we could spend more money, which would help the economy.”

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The push for a $15 per hour wage has seen local victories.

▪ Last week, Duke University and Duke University Health System announced they are raising pay to $15 for 2,300 employees. That’s more than twice the current federal and state minimum wage of $7.25.

▪ At the rally Durham City Council member Jillian Johnson noted that next year every starting city employee will be paid at least $15 per hour, a figure she said Durham County already pays its workers.

But Monday’s rally also emphasized the need for union representation, with even T-shirts proclaiming “$15 and a union.”

“It’s about much more than higher wages,” said MaryBe McMillan, secretary-treasurer of the N.C. AFL-CIO. “It’s about self determination. It’s about changing the balance of power in this country.”

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"I believe we should fight for what we want," says Nico Mangine, 12, with his mother Gwenn Mangine of Cary on Monday, Sept. 4, 2017. About 175 people rallied on CCB Plaza in downtown Durham for a $15 per hour wage and the right to unionize for fast-food and other service-industry workers. Mark Schultz mschultz@heraldsun.com

Critics say a higher minimum wage will cost entry-level jobs. They point to self-serve kiosks and other technology that could replace higher-paid workers.

But the Fight for $15 movement has already increased pay for some.

Since launching in November 2012, the campaign has helped bring about more than $62 billion in increased pay for 22 million workers, according to the AFL-CIO. That includes more than 10 million on their way to $15 per hour.

In 2015, McDonald’s raised wages for employees at its company-owned restaurants to at least $1 above the local minimum wage and enabled them to earn paid time off, according to its website. The deal only applies to company stores, however – not franchises, which make up 90 percent of all McDonald stores.

Coker said the trend encourages her, but she still knows too many employees and even managers that have two jobs.

And she struggles, too.

On Monday she starts dialysis for kidney failure. She already had diabetes and high blood pressure. When she goes to get her medicine, the pharmacist asks if she wants to switch to automatic refills.

“I’m like, I can’t afford to be on automatic refills,” she said. “I might have to pay the water bill.”

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Keith Bullard leads marchers in a demonstration outside the downtown Durham McDonald’s on Sept. 4, 2017, calling for a $15 per hour wage and the right to unionize for fast-food and other service-industry workers. Mark Schultz mschultz@heraldsun.com

It would take voluntary recognition or a National Labor Relations Board-approved election to get fast-food union representation. That could be a long shot in North Carolina, a right-to-work state where even when unions do win a contract, not all workers covered by it have to join the union or pay dues.

But marchers outside McDonald’s on Monday said they are in for the long haul.

“We got your back!” they shouted as they turned and faced the restaurant. “We’ll be back!”

Mark Schultz: 919-829-8950; @HeraldSunEditor

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