Jose Avila thought he could save money to pay off college loans by moving into his mother’s one-bedroom Houston apartment and working at a Subway restaurant. But he says he’s barely making ends meet on his $7.75-an-hour wage, and he considers taking the bus to work such an extravagance that he walks an hour and a half each way, unless it’s raining.
Avila, 22, says he plans to join fast-food workers in dozens of cities across the country on Thursday in a pre-Labor Day strike to call for $15-an-hour wages. Workers in Houston, Dallas and Austin plan to participate, organizers say.
“I want people to see what’s behind the counter of these restaurants,” said Avila, who dropped out of college for financial reasons and has worked at Subway for about a year. “We’re not making it with minimum wage anymore.”
Avila’s salary is slightly above the federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour. Nationally, the median wage for front-line fast-food workers is $8.94 per hour, according to the National Employment Law Project, which advocates for low-wage workers.
Thursday’s planned strikes come after similar action in New York City in November as well as strikes this year in cities including Chicago, Detroit and Seattle.
The events have received financial and technical support from the Service Employees International Union and are being run by groups such as the Texas Organizing Project.
On Thursday, workers are expected to walk off the job at restaurants including McDonald’s, Burger King and Wendy’s and, in some cities, at retail stores such as Macy’s, Sears and Dollar Tree. Workers are also calling for the right to form a union without retaliation.
James Galbraith, a professor of government at the LBJ School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin who has called for a $12 minimum wage, said the fast-food worker movement is “a heartening development.”
“What you’re looking at is a group of people who are trying to do something really quite difficult, which is to achieve a higher minimum wage in a sector that historically depends on and has been adamant about having very low-wage standards,” he said. “The challenge they’re taking on is quite impressive.”
Richie Jackson, CEO of the Texas Restaurant Association, said most minimum-wage workers are just beginning their professional lives, and that the vast majority of restaurant workers earning the federal minimum wage are part-time employees.
He said that Texas’ restaurant industry is “an engine of growth” for the state’s economy and that Texas restaurants employ more than 1 million people.
“Restaurant jobs teach invaluable skills and a strong work ethic that help workers grow in their professional lives,” Jackson said in a statement.
But a July report by the National Employment Law Project found that just 2.2 percent of jobs in the fast-food industry are managerial, professional or technical.
Subway said in a statement that franchisees determine the wages and benefits of their staff.
And McDonald’s USA said it aims to offer competitive pay and benefits to employees and that it provides training and professional development.
“Our history is full of examples of individuals who worked their first job with McDonald’s and went on to successful careers both within and outside of McDonald’s,” the company said in a statement. “The story promoted by the individuals organizing these events does not provide an accurate picture of what it means to work at McDonald’s."
Strike organizers are planning a Thursday rally outside a McDonald’s in Houston, and state Rep. Armando Walle, D-Houston, plans to attend.
The fight is personal for Walle because when he was in junior high school, his mother worked for minimum wage at Church’s Chicken to support her four children.
“There are thousands of folks today who can’t make ends meet, and they’re working hard,” Walle said. “They’re not deadbeat folks who are trying to take advantage of the system.”
For Houston resident Robbin McCoy, 51, her $7.50-an-hour job of two years at Jack in the Box involves everything from unloading trucks to cleaning grease to working as a cashier. She said she has no health insurance and relies on other work — cleaning houses, serving food at parties and selling jewelry she makes — to pay her bills.
“I have a good work ethic. I’m serving you like you’re family,” McCoy said. “I believe that I deserve $15 an hour.”