Fast-food Workers Strike for Higher Wages, Get Arrested 

Employees from area fast-food restaurants are still demanding $15 an hour.

Local fast-food workers involved in ongoing national strikes for higher wages are not havin' it their way, but they're hoping a recent string of arrests will help.

click to enlarge Fast-food workers demonstrated on - Poplar during a strike last week. - CHRIS SHAW
  • Chris Shaw
  • Fast-food workers demonstrated on Poplar during a strike last week.

The latest fast-food worker demonstration outside McDonald's on Poplar near White Station last week ended with nine people in handcuffs. And demonstrators say they are hoping that the pre-meditated arrests will lead to a greater awareness of their cause.

In one of the largest fast-food strikes that the city has seen, workers from St. Louis and Little Rock joined fast-food and restaurant workers from Memphis to protest low wages. The group met at multiple fast-food restaurants before ending the rally at the East Memphis McDonald's. Wearing shirts that read "Memphis 15," "Little Rock 15," and "St. Louis 15," the protesters called for the wages of fast-food workers to be raised to $15 an hour and for the right for fast-food workers to form a union.

After a series of chants of "We've got the Blue Flu, too" and "We can't survive on $7.25," a group of protesters marched into the street, blocking the eastbound lanes of Poplar for a few minutes.

Police confronted the protesters in the street, and nine were arrested and loaded into a Blue Crush police vehicle. Following the arrests, police slowly advanced on the crowd, backing people up through the parking lots of local businesses before ultimately leading the crowd to the parking lot of Bed Bath & Beyond, where buses and vans were waiting for them.

Multiple sources who asked to remain anonymous confirmed that the arrests made last Thursday were planned and that police were likely informed of when and where the final demonstration at Thursday's fast-food rally would take place.

"Originally we planned on having 19 people arrested, but people started going out into the street so fast that not everyone who planned on getting arrested did," said a demonstrator, who asked to remain anonymous.

Shawne Porter, an organizer from Little Rock who brought a van of fast-food workers to the Memphis strike, said she was surprised that the local police acted as quickly as they did.

"We were out in the streets of Little Rock for over an hour before the police told us that we had to leave because we were blocking traffic," Porter said. "There were six people arrested in Little Rock, but I was surprised at how fast the demonstrators were arrested in Memphis. It seemed like they knew we were coming, and they were ready to use force to make us leave."

Following the latest nationwide protest in which more than 100 people were arrested in various cities, McDonald's released the following statement: "McDonald's and our independent franchisees support paying our valued employees fair wages aligned with a competitive marketplace. We believe that any minimum wage increase should be implemented over time so that the impact on owners of small and medium-sized businesses — like the ones who own and operate the majority of our restaurants — is manageable. Additionally, we believe that any increase needs to be considered in a broad context, one that considers, for example, the impact of the Affordable Care Act and its definition of 'full time' employment, as well as the treatment, from a tax perspective, of investments made by businesses owners.

"It's important to know approximately 90 percent of our U.S. restaurants are independently owned and operated by franchisees who set wages according to job level and local and federal laws. McDonald's does not determine wages set by our more than 3,000 U.S. franchisees."

Even at the threat of being arrested or fired, local Church's Chicken employee and protester Christopher Smith said he doesn't see any other method to get his message across.

"They don't listen to any of our demands we make at work, so this is our only option," Smith said. "I've been there for two years, and I've only gotten one raise. I feel like my voice isn't being recognized. We deal with public people every day just like everyone else, and just because we work at a fast-food restaurant doesn't mean we are below everyone else."

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