About 25 demonstrators chanted and marched through the drive-through at Wendy’s at 771 Warwick Ave. during lunch today, part of a multi-national campaign calling for higher wages and union organization for fast food workers.
The group, dubbing their movement “Fight for 15”, organized by Jesse Strecker, executive director of RI Jobs with Justice, gathered in a nearby parking lot just before noon and marched en-masse next door to the restaurant, walking around it and through the venue’s drive-through as customers were ordering and picking up their food.
As demonstrators marched, Strecker led them in a chant using a gray cracked, chipped loudspeaker: “We gotta beat. Back. The corporate attack. We gotta beat, beat back that corporate attack,” and “What do we want? Justice. When do we want it? Now.”
The protesters passed the drive-through window and walked to the sidewalk, gathering under the restaurant’s sign minutes before three Warwick Police cruisers arrived at the scene. Officers advised the protestors to keep on the sidewalk and avoid obstructing traffic in and out of the business during their demonstration. The rest of the demonstration stayed on the sidewalk.
Strecker said they were participating in a nation-wide event in 150 U.S. Cities and in 33 other countries. In the U.S., he said, they are calling for a $15 hourly wage and the right to unionize without retaliation for fast food workers. (Though he said Jobs with Justice supports raising the national minimum wage, today’s protests were not focused on that particular goal.)
Warwick Rep. David Bennett (D-Dist. 20) attended the event. Prior to the protest, he released a statement, saying, “A fair wage for Rhode Island fast food workers would get the economy moving again instead of creating a work force dependent on food stamps or other public assistance that is currently subsidizing their low wages.”
Online, Rep. Frank Ferri (D -Dist. 22) also supported the effort, writing via Twitter @RepFrankFerri, “Proud to stand w/ fast food workers in Warwick. RT if you believe no one who works full time should live in poverty. #FightFor15.”
Before the march, an employee of the restaurant who identified herself as “Mona” said she makes $8 an hour there. She said $15 an hour would allow her to pay her rent on time. “It means supporting my kids the right way,” she said.
Mona said that though she has a certification from the Sawyer School as a medical assistant, there aren’t any jobs available in that field, which forced her to take the Wendy’s job.
“That’s what happens when people are on unemployment and you cut unemployment,” Mona said.
She said the job market has forced her to accept what Wendy’s is paying. “You show me a better job and I’ll be there,” Mona said.
Jo-ann Gesterling, an employee at the Warwick Wendy’s for 5 1/2 years, said she started at the restaurant making $7.65 an hour. Today, she makes $8.35 an hour. Gesterling, a Cranston resident who grew up in Warwick with a Liberal Arts Associates Degree from CCRI, described herself as a good employee, a front counter worker who helps ensure that customers come back.
“I do everything they want and then some,” she said.
Gesterling said for her, $15 an hour would let her plan for the future. Now, she said, she only has a bare minimum saved from her wages. Earning more would give her more security, she said, and “the dignity that would come with that.”
Robert Paquin, executive director for the RIGOP, observed the protest from the Wendy’s parking lot in a red Mercedes convertible. He said that while he didn’t support a minimum wage of $15 hourly for fast food workers, he thought perpetually low wages were ‘a problem’ — “I know that $7.75 isn’t going to pay the rent.”
Pauquin said if he were working someplace getting low wages that never appreciably increased, he would quit. When asked what he would do if he needed the job to support a family, as in Mona’s case, with no place else to go in the job market, Paquin said, “Then we come back to the right versus left. What’s the best way to foster new business?”
Inside the restaurant, which was locked during the demonstration with only the drive-through open until protesters cleared, an unidentified man refused to allow a reporter access. No comment was received.
Earlier that morning, the group also protested at Burger King on Lonsdale Avenue in Providence, which was covered by RIFuture.org.