Stephen Mason raised his voice over honking motorists and whooping protesters at a McDonald's in Brainerd Thursday and explained why he thinks the federal minimum wage should be raised to $15 an hour.
"It's not fair that corporations' wages go up, they make more money and we still make the same," he said, holding a poster. "If our raises would have kept up with theirs, we'd be making $22 an hour right now."
For the last six years, Mason has worked in fast food and earned $7.25 an hour, the current federal minimum wage.
"You're just working to live," he said. "I'm scraping by. You've got to stand up and do something about it."
He was one of about 25 local activists who lined the corner of Moore and Brainerd Roads Thursday to protest low wages -- part of a national day of similar demonstrations in at least 100 cities across the United States.
The wave of protests is the latest push in an effort by labor unions, advocacy groups and politicians to raise the federal minimum wage.
It's gaining some momentum: last month, President Barack Obama threw his support behind a Democrat-led effort to slowly raise the minimum wage to $10.10 by 2015. In September, California voted to raise the state's minimum wage to $10 by 2016. And a proposal to raise the minimum wage in the District of Columbia to $11.50 by 2016 has cleared an initial vote and is expected to pass in January.
Setting the federal minimum at $10.10 an hour would affect almost 700,000 Tennesseeans, according to a March study by the Economic Policy Institute. Tennessee wages would jump by $1.2 billion --the average Tennessee worker would earn $2,229 more annually.
The median wage for fast food workers in the Chattanooga region was $8.40 in June, according to the Tennessee Department of Labor & Workforce Development. The median wage for all occupations was $14.40.
Protestor Katie Cowley-Carpenter said she believes $15 an hour is a realistic goal for the region.
"By giving a living wage to workers, we're increasing their purchasing power and that money will go back into local and national economies," she said. "And we know our economy is still struggling tremendously. That would be one way to alleviate it."
But opponents argue that raising the minimum wage would force business owners to cut hours, stop hiring or lay off workers in order to pay the higher hourly rates while still making ends meet. And that's especially prevalent in the restaurant world, said Sabrina Schaeffer, director of the conservative think tank Independent Women's Forum.
"People often assume that employers have huge profit margins and could easily pay more but don't because they are mean-spirited," she said. "That's just not the case. Most franchises operate on very small margins."
She added that laws and regulations make it difficult for small businesses to create and sustain jobs, and argued that job creation is essential to economic recovery. But Cowley-Carpenter said she thinks a higher minimum wage would actually help small businesses compete.
"Small business employees are struggling more at the hands of large corporations who are putting them out of business," she said. "[The corporations] are able to offer lower prices through paying their employees lower wages. By giving employees a higher wage, it will boost our economy because they can go out and purchase from and support local businesses."
Cowley-Carpenter and other protesters from Chattanooga Organized for Action, Occupy Chattanooga and Chattanooga for Workers kept the message simple Thursday, waving signs that read, "Living wage YES," "We can't survive on $7.25" or "Fair wages, not slave wages."
Several protesters bought drinks or snacks at McDonald's and read written thank you notes out loud to McDonald's employees, crowding into the restaurant around noon.
"We stand by you in demanding that McDonald's corporation increase your pay to $15 per hour," read one note. "We acknowledge that the low pay you receive hurts not just you but all of us."
A McDonald's manager declined to comment and McDonald's employees didn't join the protest.
Contact staff writer Shelly Bradbury at 423-757-6525 or firstname.lastname@example.org.