Natasha Carson was a bit frightened on Wednesday afternoon when she found herself at the front of the crowd, carrying part of a banner in the protest against her employer, McDonald’s. She had been part of earlier fast food protests, but this one, at the company’s corporate headquarters outside Chicago, was bigger, with ample media attention and plenty of police.
Police officers, some in riot gear, watched as protesters, including union leaders and clergy, started chanting and singing. “I was pushing away my fear,” Carson said in an interview. “You stand up for your rights and you make history.”
That sentiment comes from a 20-year-old who lives with her mom in Milwaukee, and is known as Tazz. She has worked for McDonald’s for almost five years, starting in high school and now while attending Milwaukee Area Technical College.
Organizers say she was the first worker arrested Wednesday, and then 100 others from 33 cities were taken into custody. Oak Brook, IL, police started the arrests for trespassing around 1:15 p.m., and more arrests could come Thursday as the workers take their demands for $15 an hour wages to McDonald’s annual shareholders meeting. Reuters reported that on Thursday shareholders were scheduled to vote on executive pay, including that of McDonald’s chief executive Donald Thompson, whose total compensation was $9.5 million in 2013.
Carson planned to return for Thursday’s demonstration, and said she’s feeling enthused and determined after a police officer took her by her shirt Wednesday, and asked her ‘Do you know why you’re being arrested?” She told him: “I’m just standing up for my rights.”
When she first decided she was joining the fast food strikes, she sat down and explained her feelings to her mother. After five years at McDonald’s, Carson said she earns $7.80 an hour, and yet she needs to pay her share of the family expenses.
“I told my Mom that I want to go on strike and everything because of how much they’re paying is not enough,” she said. “She told me to stand up for my rights.”
McDonald’s said in a statement that it offers “competitive pay based on the local marketplace and job level…. We have a long, proven history of providing advancement opportunities for those who want it.”
More than half of all fast food workers are female, and more than a third of burger flippers have at least some college education, according to the Center for Economic and Policy Research. During the past year, fast food workers, as well as employees for large retails chains, have staged demonstrations for higher wages, helping to spark the national debate about raising the minimum wage and addressing growing income inequality.
As much as she wants higher wages and a union in the Southridge Mall McDonald’s where she works, Carson is even more keen on better working conditions, such as a steady schedule of hours – “So I can know how much money I am getting” and help pay more of the family’s bills.
“It’s not like a guaranteed hours. One minute it will be 15 hours (a week) and the next minute it will be 40 hours,” she said. “Every week it changes.”
A manager at the Southridge restaurant confirmed Carson’s employment and said she was a good employee.
Carson works a second job as a dietary aid at a Jewish Center about 15 hours a week, and goes to a college where she is studying culinary arts. She hopes to become a chef.
Carson expects to stick with the protests, because she wants her nieces and nephews to be able to have better wages. “If I have to constantly get arrested ’til they make a change, I will do it,” she said.
Vickie Elmer is a freelance writer based in Detroit who covers careers, leadership and women’s issues. She blogs on careers, creativity and kindness at WorkingKind.com.