Dozens of workers staged a demonstration at a Durham Waffle House last Friday, rallying for fair wages, workplace safety, and an end to unfair paycheck deductions as part of a months-long initiative that aims to improve working conditions for employees of the restaurant chain’s nearly 2,000 locations.

The demonstration, which took place at the Waffle House on NC Highway 55, was arranged and primarily attended by members of the Union of Southern Service Workers (USSW), who flooded the restaurant during breakfast hours and delivered speeches over a backdrop of clattering kitchenware. 

Vivian Wilson, a USSW member who has worked at a Waffle House in Asheville for the past two years, recalled instances in which customers threatened her or requested that she take off her clothes. 

“When I told my manager I was scared to go into work,” Wilson said, “she told me she’s been threatened many times, which made me feel like I was just overreacting.”

After Wilson spoke, the group moved the demonstration outside, chanting and waving signs at cars and passersby. One on-the-clock Waffle House worker, Tajmahal Smith, walked out with them in a spontaneous strike.

Waffle House employee Tajmahal Smith at the September 29 demonstration. Photo courtesy of the USSW.

An advocacy group that evolved from the Southern branch of Fight For $15, the USSW has centered its efforts around organizing Waffle House locations since July, when workers at a Waffle House in Columbia, South Carolina went on strike.

According to a release, the strike came after management refused to meet workers’ demands for increased security at the Columbia location—which, like all Waffle Houses, is open 24 hours a day, 365 days a year—in the wake of a series of distressing interactions with customers. One customer, for instance, had retrieved his gun from his truck after being served grits instead of hashbrowns.

In mid-September, more Waffle House workers staged rallies at locations in Orangeburg, South Carolina and Atlanta, Georgia, and last week, the USSW released a petition enumerating three company-wide demands. 

The first demand, labeled “safety at work,” asks that Waffle House management not only hire round-the-clock security but also allow workers to have “real input on creating a Safety Plan for their store, including during natural disasters.” (The chain, as anyone familiar with the Waffle House Index knows, is famous for remaining open during extreme weather.)

Other demands include an end to Waffle House’s mandatory meal deduction policy, which requires workers to purchase discounted shift meals, and a $25 an hour wage for all employees.

“Some days I feel like I’m a maid, waitress, busser, and a dishwasher for only $2.13 an hour plus tips,” Wilson said at the Durham demonstration. “My paycheck is barely $100 a week.”

“If I made $25 an hour, I’d be able to get a car,” she said, “and take my cat to the vet.”

Follow Staff Writer Lena Geller on Twitter or send an email to

Support independent local journalism

Join the INDY Press Club to help us keep fearless watchdog reporting and essential arts and culture coverage viable in the Triangle.