via Oakland Local – Was my honor to talk with these inspiring young people.
Meet three from Oakland who attended a national convention of fast food workers in Chicago with about 1,300 others July 26-27. Their movement for $15-an-hour wages and a union has helped bring national attention to extreme income inequality from a workers’ perspective. Recently, the NAACP announced unanimous endorsement of the $15-an-hour fight. Since fast food workers first walked off their jobs in New York City in November 2012, the campaign has spread across the country and internationally.
Rhonesha Victor is 24 years old, a skilled photographer, and finishing an AA degree at Laney Community College. She works at a KFC/Taco Bell in Oakland. She was drawn to the fast food movement early on in the organizing in the East Bay and has been involved with the fast food workers for two years. One of her chief motivators is the responsibility she has for elderly parents, who she cares deeply about.
“They don’t have any other people. $15 an hour would allow me to go to the store and buy groceries. Right now I go to the food bank. Both my parents are disabled and haven’t worked for over ten years. I would love to have a car to go to the places we need to go. When the transmissions went out in our cars, we had to sell them … I am no one’s charity case. I work and should be able to support myself.”
When asked about going to the first-ever fast food convention in Chicago, Ronnie said, “I’m excited about going to Chicago specifically to talk with more African-American women involved in this work. I feel really strong about this campaign and believe that we can make a change. It just takes people getting up and doing something.”
Zharia Harper is 18 years old and a recent graduate from Berkeley High. While Zharia was completing school in June, her mom was finishing up a program to become a pharmaceutical technician. The certification hours didn’t allow her mother to work, so Zharia’s $8-an-hour paycheck from McDonald’s had to cover their rent and bills. Of this difficult month, Zharia says “June was hard, it was really something.”
Zharia is a gifted dancer and part of an African dance performance group. She is attending Laney Community College in the fall and plans to transfer to a 4-year university where she can study environmental agriculture and politics. She’s been working at McDonald’s for about a year and became involved with the East Bay Fast Food Workers through a coworker.
Zharia started going to meetings and learning about the struggle for a $15 wage and the right to organize. This all made sense to her, especially given how hard it is for she and her mom (who currently also works for minimum wage pending her certification) to make ends meet.
Zharia is a straight-shooter. She has had one run-in with management at McDonald’s when she tried to do the right thing (after forgetting to clock out) but was threatened with suspension for a week because the work climate is one of “guilty before proven innocent.” In the end, Zharia was vindicated, but it was an eye-opener.
When asked what $15 an hour would mean to her, Zharia said, “$15 would make a huge difference. It would help with college. I could put money aside. I could help my mom. I’m 18 and McDonald’s is my first job, but I’m not this imaginary worker happy with minimum wage. I’m fighting for $15 for now and for the future.”
Going to Chicago is a milestone. It is the first-ever nationwide fast food workers convention and it’s also the first time Zharia has ever been on a plane. She looks forward to hearing the stories of other workers and meeting new people like her who want to change things.
Chris Higgenbotham was born and raised in Oakland. Chris is a recent graduate of Morehouse College, class of 2013 (English Major, concentration in film and journalism) and teaches high school history at Patten Academy, a private school. He’s in the process of getting his teaching credential. Chris is actively involved in the community (volunteers at youth centers, homeless shelters and coaches basketball) and works part-time at McDonald’s in Oakland to supplement his teacher’s pay. He’s worked for McDonald’s while in college and during breaks for a total of 5 years.
When asked why he’s going to Chicago for the convention Chris had this to say: “I’m going to the Chicago fast food worker convention because it’s not just about one city – it’s for all of us working in the industry to have a chance for the American dream. The government, everyone, tells us that we can achieve this dream… but since we don’t get paid right and don’t have sick days, we are highly disadvantaged compared to other industries. We just want the same benefits as others, to strive for ourselves and our families. We’re working just as hard and making sure that McDonald’s has huge profits, so we should benefit more from those profits – because they are ridiculous.”