The July 2020 Strike for Black Lives in Durham, N.C. (Photo Credit: NC Raise Up)

Rita Blalock has worked at a North Carolina McDonald’s for 10 years, taking the bus to and from work each day. During the COVID-19 crisis, the 54-year-old has continued cranking out food while suffering from cataracts, risking her health and her life for $10 an hour. Blalock does not have health insurance, and the multibillion dollar company that employs her does not offer her paid sick time or hazard pay to work through the pandemic. At times, she’s relied on government assistance to eat—and even then, she sometimes only ate once a day. Blalock and other fast food workers in North Carolina are fighting back against these conditions by striking on Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday and demanding that corporations increase wages.

At 2 p.m. today, Blalock will join other North Carolina fast food workers like Monteigo Wilson to participate in a car caravan and socially-distanced speakout outside of a Durham, McDonald’s. The strike is part of a larger action taking place Jan. 15 across 15 cities nationwide in which fast food workers are demanding $15 an hour from corporations like McDonald’s. 

Blalock told Prism in a phone interview that she has worked for the entirety of the pandemic—through blindness and through her house catching on fire.

“I’m in a world of stuff right now. I am one of those essential workers. I’m still going to work and performing my duties. It’s been hard,” Blalock said. “McDonald’s can do better than what it’s doing. That’s why I’m fighting. All McDonald’s workers need $15 to support themselves, their families, and their kids. We need this.”

Blaclock and other striking workers are members of Fight for $15, a movement that began in 2012 when 200 fast food workers walked off the job to demand $15 an hour and union rights in New York City. Fight for $15 is now a global movement, spanning 300 cities and six continents, with organizers demanding that corporations increase wages and that state and federal governments step in to mandate a $15 minimum across the board.

Durham, North Carolina’s branch of Fight for $15—NC Raise Up—began in 2013 and it includes a variety of low-wage workers organizing across the restaurant and service sectors. Among NC Raise Up’s members are fast food workers, gas station workers, dollar store workers, retail workers, and others. NC Raise Up organizes with workers across the South, including in Fayetteville, N.C. and Charleston, S.C., as well as multiple cities across Florida, where more than 60% of voters approved a $15 minimum wage in November’s election.

The timing of today’s action is significant, as fast food workers view this strike as a continuation of MLK’s work. Raising the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour would lift wages for nearly 40% of Black workers, making significant steps toward reducing the racial wage gap.

Monteigo Wilson is a shift supervisor at the Durham McDonald’s where today’s strike will occur. While he is new to organizing work—first joining the Fight for $15 last July as part of the Strike for Black Lives—he has quickly found his footing. In December, he was one of several workers to go on strike about COVID safety concerns inside his store. The 29-year-old told Prism that striking and protesting work conditions at first felt “scary,” but he said he feels a responsibility to stand up for his workers.

“I’m trying to get workers to feel like they have more of a say so at their jobs, and I’m fighting for this $15 for me and for them. The cost of living is going up, but the minimum wage is not going up and we can’t live like this,” Wilson said. “I’m striking on Martin Luther King’s birthday because his fight is our fight; we want fair pay, union rights, and racial justice. That’s what I’m fighting for.”

Wilson told Prism that it’s impossible to live off of the $7.25 an hour minimum wage and he is urging workers from across the nation to exercise their right to protest and join the Fight for $15.

“This is something that will help everyone around the country. We are going to get this $15, one way or another, we’re getting it for workers,” Wilson said.

There is currently a great deal of momentum around raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour. President-Elect Joe Biden recently announced that he is seeking to increase the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour as part of his $1.9 trillion pandemic relief bill. Workers in the Fight for $15 movement are demanding that Biden increase the minimum wage during his first 100 days in office. In addition to the strike in Durham, workers will also strike today across Florida and in Atlanta, GA, Chicago, IL, Charleston, SC, Detroit, MI, Houston, TX, Kansas City, MO, Los Angeles, CA, Milwaukee, WI, Memphis, TN, Oakland, CA, and St. Louis, MO.

Blalock said $10 an hour is the most she’s ever made in her life and that $15 an hour would fundamentally change her circumstances. She could save money for the first time, she said, or purchase things she wants and needs.

The 54-year-old had to jump through bureaucratic hoops to get Medicaid for cataracts surgery, but Medicaid would only cover one eye. Blalock is unsure how or when she will get surgery on her second eye, but what she does know is that she won’t be paid for any sick time she may need to take off. While a $15 minimum wage will not fix all of these issues, it’s certainly a “good start,” said Blalock, who’s been in NC Raise Up for seven years. For most of that time, she said she was hesitant to publicly speak out. However, Blalock is speaking at today’s strike in Durham.

“I’m not used to standing in front of a lot of people, but the strike is important. All strikes are meaningful and my really big hope is that the government will really see us and hear us [today] and know that we are really serious about this $15,” Blalock said. “For the ones that don’t think we need it, they need to be in our shoes for a couple of days and see how it feels. They will see that we need this $15.”

Today’s strike by McDonald’s and other fast food workers in NC Raise Up/Fight for $15 will take place at 2 pm outside the McDonald’s located at 5277 N. Roxboro Rd, Durham, NC.

Tina Vásquez is the editor-at-large at Prism. She covers gender justice, workers' rights, and immigration. Follow her on Twitter @TheTinaVasquez.