A warm and sunny Thursday afternoon turned electric when the multi-billion dollar corporation’s cooks and cashiers used their cars to surround the restaurant, calling on members of Congress and President-elect Joe Biden to pass a $15 minimum wage.

“McDonald’s makes billions of dollars off our hard work, said employee Monteigo Wilson. “They should be paying us at least $15 an hour. We demand that McDonald’s take our safety seriously. Pay for workers to get tested. Shut down the store and bring in a professional cleaning crew to make sure it’s really safe. And pay workers who need to quarantine.”

Wilson was one of about 50 fast food employees who walked off their jobs, or just didn’t go to work at several McDonald’s and other Durham fast food stores Thursday to participate in the demonstration after they found out about a positive COVID case at a local McDonald’s on Monday. They were joined by about 30 community supporters.

According to a Wednesday press statement from NC Raise Up: Fight for $15 and a Union, the store’s managers did not notify the workers about the positive employee, nor did they perform a professional cleaning on the restaurant.

“Instead, McDonald’s transferred workers from another location to fill in at the contaminated store without telling workers about the risk of COVID exposure,” they said in a  statement.

The company could not be reached for comment. 

Days before the wildcat strike, the workers said they notified their employers about the peaceful, one-day strike and their demands for “a living wage of $15 an hour and the right to join a union without interference.”

“Raising the minimum wage is a matter of racial justice,” said Henry Nelson III, a local Chik-Fil-A worker who participated in the strike. “Black and brown employees working for these fast food places are not getting paid as much as they should. Fifteen dollars is really a bare minimum of what we need, but it’s a start.”

The employees also demanded that management do more to enforce mask usage and social distancing, and to inform workers about COVID cases in the stores.

Inadequate protections are particularly concerning for the in-person workers at the onset of a winter season that has seen an unprecedented surge in new COVID infections and deaths across the country.

Nyreese Cole, a McDonald’s worker who pulls down $9 an hour, said the fast food conglomerate can surely afford to pay its employees $15 and give them some degree of financial security, “since we are risking our lives to work through this pandemic.”

“I work three jobs and I am just barely getting by,” he added.

The nearly hour-long, noontime protest occurred at the fast food chain’s store on 2010 North Roxboro Road.“Forward together, not one step back,” Wendy’s employee Precious Cole and McDonald’s employee Antione Williams chanted in megaphones on a sidewalk just outside the store.

The Raise Up $15 movement is starting to gain momentum, here in Durham and across the country.

A ballot initiative for a $15 minimum wage in Florida during last month’s election in November garnered more than 60 percent of the vote. This week, Starbucks announced that it will give its workers a 10 percent pay hike, and Washington D.C.-based &pizza announced it will pay its workers $15 an hour.

Here in Durham, employees at Freddy’s Frozen Custard and Steakburgers on Watkins Road staged two strikes recently. Their actions prompted a spokeswoman with the chain’s national headquarters to announce in October that the store will begin up to 10 days of quarantine for any employee who tests positive, meeting one of the striking workers’ key demands.

Last year, Durham City Council members rejected Police Chief Cerelyn “CJ” Davis’s request for 18 additional officers and instead agreed that the city should pay its roughly 200 part-time workers up to $15.46 an hour.

Meanwhile, McDonald’s pays the megaphone-wielding Williams $8 an hour.

“After I worked there for almost a year, they offered me a seven cent raise. SEVEN CENTS!” he shouted. “I have been asking for a raise, but McDonald’s is not listening…We are here to make them listen and respect us as workers!”

Follow Durham Staff Writer Thomasi McDonald on Twitter or send an email to tmcdonald@indyweek.com.

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