Democratic presidential candidate Julian Castro addressed a large crowd outside the McDonald’s restaurant on Morgan Avenue in Durham Thursday morning.
“One of the first things I noticed, because I used to be the Secretary of Housing, is how many beautiful construction projects are going up around Durham,” Castro said. “And so many of them are luxury condos and apartments – you can’t afford them. You can’t afford them because places like McDonald’s are paying less than $8 an hour to their workers. You can’t afford them because companies across the United States are making more and more profit without passing that down to the people who make that profit for them.”
Hundreds marched to the McDonald’s Thursday as part of the Fight for 15 movement, demanding a $15 minimum wage, the right to form unions and health care and sexual harassment policy reforms in the fast food industry.
The crowd was peaceful but passionate throughout the morning, chanting “We work, we sweat, put 15 on our check!” and “Put some respect on our check!”
Castro, who was Secretary of Housing and Urban Development under former President Barack Obama from 2014 to 2017, is one of a number of Democratic candidates marching in similar rallies all over the country as the issue becomes a crucial one in the presidential primary.
“What’s happened in this country over the last 40 years is we’ve expected less and less from people and from corporations at the very top,” Castro said. “And we’ve expected more and more from the middle class and the working poor.”
N.C. Rep. Marica Morey (D-Durham)rallied with the crowd in a red “Fight for 15” t-shirt and praised Castro for coming to North Carolina to support the movement.
“He has been out front on this issue and I think him being here is a tribute to Durham and to the movement,” Morey said.
Morey is among the lawmakers who have sponsored bills in the General Assembly to raise the minimum wage, most recently a House bill that would establish a living wage in the state by 2024.
Opposition from the Republican majority in the General Assembly has kept such bills from getting out of committee.
Fast food workers shared their testimony with the crowd Thursday, saying they’ve struggled with harassment, assault and constant financial insecurity while working in the industry.
Lois Jones, a fast food worker who once worked at the very McDonald’s that was the scene of Thursday’s rally, told the crowd she experienced sexual harassment and assault during her time at a McDonald’s employee at multiple locations. Speaking up didn’t bring help but retaliation, she said.
“When I said something, no one did nothing about it,” Jones said. “After that my hours got cut. They started playing with my time and my paycheck.”
McDonald’s sets the standard for the fast food industry, Jones said, and should lead the way in improving pay and conditions for its employees.
Castro didn’t just address the crowd Thursday. He also briefly headed into the restaurant to speak with workers and management.
In a white shirt with rolled up sleeves, black pants and Nike running shoes, the 44-year old former mayor of San Antonio, Texas reminded some in the crowd of a young Barack Obama when he first hit the campaign trail.
“I liked that he got out there and marched, he got out there and talked to people one on one and he went inside and talked with the people who need to hear it, too,” said Joyce Batton, who came from Cary for the rally. “That’s what we need in someone running for president.”
After speaking briefly to workers behind the counter in English and Spanish, Castro told the crowd outside he got “a bit of a cold reception.” It’s important to continue reaching out to workers who are an essential part of pushing for change.
Eshawney Gaston, a fast-food worker who spoke at the rally, said another essential part is securing the right for fast food workers to unionize.
“Without a union we can fight for changes but we’re not going to keep them,” Gaston said. “They may give us $15 but they’ll just take it away again. If we don’t have a union we don’t have any say-s0. We’re not at the table.”
The Rev. William Barber, leader of the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival and one of the architects of the Moral Monday protests during his time as head of the state NAACP, closed Thursday’s rally. In a passionate speech, Barber called for a raised minimum wage, fair elections and recognition of the struggles of workers who make corporate profits possible.
“We will fight until the American dream belongs to all of us and not some of us,” Barber said. “And not only will we fight – we will win.”
Barber quoted Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in saying that those working for low wages are encouraged to embrace rugged individualism and pull themselves up by their boot straps while large corporations in America enjoy socialism in the form of corporate welfare.
With Castro smiling next to him, Barber said these issues will be front and center in the 2020 presidential campaign.
“We will demand that every presidential candidate be for ’15 and a Union,'” Barber said. “If you don’t stand with workers we can’t stand with you.”