Workers protest low wages outside Grove Hall fast-food eatery

Andy Metzger, State House News Service
Dec. 6, 2013

With a two-track push for a minimum wage increase on a roll in Massachusetts, fast food workers and their supporters rallied for higher wages in a Burger King parking lot midday Thursday.

Kyle King, a 46-year-old Roxbury resident who works at a Burger King in downtown Boston, told the News Service that in nine years of employment with the chain restaurant his hourly wages increased from $8 to $8.15 and said he would not show up for his 5 p.m. shift Thursday out of protest.

“The reason why we’re out here is because we do deserve more. We do deserve our dignity,” said King, who said he wanted to send the message to “the whole of the fast food industry.”

Organizers expected Boston fast food workers to walk off their jobs, as part of a 100-city strike. None of the employees at a Columbia Road Burger King left their shift, according to organizers, though some could be seen watching the parking lot protest from behind the counter where service continued.

Under gray skies and on wet asphalt, the peaceful protest involved a few verbal skirmishes between activists and the restaurant’s manager. Activists sought to hand over to the restaurant’s manager an oversize letter from MassUniting calling for a $15 per hour wage, and briefly chanted in front of the cash registers, but were unsuccessful in completing the delivery. “Thank you,” said the manager, who declined to identify himself, as protestors filed out. The letter was then taped to one of the restaurant’s glass doors and then promptly removed by a security guard who handed it back to one of the protestors.

A suited man who did not identify himself, but said he does not represent Burger King, told organizer Marlon Washington that activists’ cars would be towed from a lot that organizers said belonged to a different, nearby business. The tow trucks never arrived, and security looked on as about 75 protestors marched in a circle in the lot, chanting, “Hey Burger King, you can’t hide; we can see your greedy side.”

As the state continues a slow climb from the recession that ended a few years ago, lawmakers and activists alike have sought new protections for workers. Raise Up Massachusetts turned in enough signatures to advance a citizens ballot petition putting the minimum wage at $10.50 per hour, and enough signatures to advance a similar measure requiring earned sick leave.

The Senate in November passed legislation that would increase the minimum wage to $11 per hour, and House Speaker Robert DeLeo predicted a “hot and heavy” debate over the issue. DeLeo favors attaching to the minimum wage bill some business relief by changing the unemployment insurance system.

“This today represents the convergence and celebration of a couple different angles of momentum, the national efforts to raise the federal minimum wage, the efforts to lobby the state Legislature and also the statewide ballot petition,” said Boston City Councilor-elect Michelle Wu, who attended the protest. She said, “The common misperception is that these jobs are for teenagers who are living at home and just trying to make some extra cash and living with mom and dad. The reality is that these low-wage jobs are the livelihood for so many families, so they are putting a lot on the line to advocate for themselves.”

Pedro Falcon, who also attended the rally, said he works at the Columbia Road Burger King, where he makes $8.50 per hour as a delivery driver plus $1 per delivery. Falcon said he drives his own car and pays for gas. The job represents a major pay cut from his past work at Logan International Airport for American Eagle, a job he lost when the airline left Boston.

King said he believes fast food executives should increase wages without action by the government, and said that after he participated in a one-day strike in August, his hours were cut from a little more than 20 per week to nine hours per week. A Roxbury resident who lives with his brother, a business owner, King said after involvement by lawyers, his hours were restored.

“I think everybody who works in this industry, who’s actually participating in the strike, is worried about job security,” said King. King, who spoke to the crowd and multiple reporters, said the action in August was his first participation in a protest, and the involvement by outsiders in his hope for better wages had heartened him.

“I was really down even before this whole strike campaign began. So thanks to MassUniting and SEIU it kind of just gave me a new hope for the future,” King said.

A cashier, King said he has trained other employees and does good work, receiving a 15-cent raise in 2006. He said he believes $10, $11, or $12 per hour would be fair wages.

“I haven’t asked for a raise in the past,” King said. He said, “Customers and other employees have said, ‘Well, he’s a good worker. He deserves a raise.’”

King said he has thought about seeking a second job, but there are not many opportunities for him.

“It’s difficult to get another job at my age,” King said.