By JIM SALTER
ST. LOUIS (AP) - Workers at more than 30 fast food restaurants in St. Louis walked off the job Thursday in a one-day strike that seeks better wages and benefits and the right to form a union.
The walkout, organized after a meeting of workers and community activists, follows similar strikes at fast food chains in New York in Chicago.
The Rev. Martin Rafanan of Missouri Jobs with Justice, one of the organizers of the St. Louis strike, said more than 100 workers walked strike lines at restaurants that included McDonald's, Hardee's, Taco Bell and many others.
"You have people working full-time, wanting to play by the rules to take care of their families, but they are unable to do so because of low wages, lack of benefits and no control of their hours," Rafanan said. "Put that together and you have this situation that is extremely challenging for a family."
April Thomas, 31, of St. Louis, was striking at a St. Louis Hardee's, where she works as a kitchen leader. She said she has worked in fast food since she was 16, and makes $8 an hour with no benefits.
"I just don't make enough to cover my rent, let alone pay the other bills," said Thomas, a mother of three. "My daughter just had her 11th birthday and I couldn't get her anything. I broke down and cried because I'm usually able to buy at least something."
Messages seeking comment from Hardee's corporate office in California were not immediately returned.
Workers in St. Louis are asking for an hourly wage of $15. For many, that would be nearly double their existing pay. Rafanan said the typical fast food worker in St. Louis is 28 and makes about $8 an hour. About 36,000 people work in fast food across the region.
Data from the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics show that two-thirds of fast food workers are women. The average national wage is $8.76. Rafanan said many earn the minimum wage - $7.25 nationally, $7.35 in Missouri.
Sue Hensley, senior vice president of public affairs and communications for the National Restaurant Association, said nearly half of restaurant workers who make the minimum wage are teenagers, many in their first jobs. She said the industry offers a gateway to success for millions of Americans.
"In addition to providing more than 13 million job opportunities, the industry is one of the best paths to achieving the American dream, with 80 percent of owners and managers having started their careers in entry-level positions," she said.
Rafanan previously was director of a homeless shelter for women and children. He said many of the women who came in had jobs at fast food restaurants, but didn't make enough to afford a home or pay rent.
"This is an industry that's very successful, very profitable," Rafanan said. "So the question is, why does this industry not care enough about their workers to pay them a salary to afford the basics of their lives?"
Hensley said a typical restaurant operates on a 3 to 4 percent pretax profit margin.
Rafanan said 50 members of the clergy will accompany striking workers when they return to their jobs Friday to ensure there is no retaliation.