VOICES: On strike for safety and respect in Western North Carolina

On Nov. 6, striking Bojangles workers in Burnsville, North Carolina, held a protest on the sidewalk outside of the restaurant. The workers say they're worried about how management has responded to the COVID-19 threat. (Photo courtesy of NC Raise Up.)

The first thing to know about us is we're hard workers. The second thing is we aren't afraid to stand up for our rights.

That's why I went on strike last week, with 12 of my coworkers from a Bojangles fast-food restaurant in my hometown of Burnsville, the seat of rural Yancey County, North Carolina. We decided to go on strike because management at Bojangles — a Charlotte-based company that reported over $1.3 billion in sales last year alone — isn't taking COVID seriously and we don't feel safe going to work.

The problem started right before Halloween, when two workers approached management at the start of their shift and said they had been exposed to COVID. The exposed workers asked whether it was safe for them to be in the store, but Bojangles' management told them that they had to stay and work. A few days later, another worker tested positive for COVID.

I worked right beside the person who tested positive, but I was never notified about it. I found out about being exposed only because one of my coworkers was looking out for me — I'm pregnant and would be at high risk if I got COVID. Bojangles' management never notified workers about COVID being in the store. I think they just wanted to keep all of us working, no matter what.

After that, workers kept popping up with positive COVID tests. Bojangles wouldn't even get the store professionally cleaned or sanitized, even though a lot of us spoke up and asked for it. The company wanted us to keep working like nothing was wrong.

When we decided to strike, it felt like we were finally taking a stand. We made the decision on a Friday night. The next day, Nov. 6, we officially started the week-long strike and protested outside our store. Workers from Durham and Charlotte, who are also members of NC Raise Up, made the long drive to come and stand with us. It was the first time that most people in our town had seen workers protesting for their rights, there in the middle of Burnsville, population 1,667.

The truth is, we were organizing inside our store even before this COVID outbreak, because there are a lot of things we need to change about our jobs. I could tell you more, but everything we are doing is a team effort. So here are some of my coworkers and an ally from Durham explaining more about why we are in this fight together:

Patricia Tapp, Burnsville Bojangles worker: When I found out that management hid COVID cases from us, I was mad. They know that I have a 2-year-old at home that I need to protect. A lot of people in our store have health problems, so we have the right to know if we were working next to someone who tests positive for COVID. Bojangles didn't do what they needed to do to protect us. So we went on strike to fight for what really matters. We're fighting to keep each other safe. I want other workers to know that it's worth it to fight for what you need, like $15 an hour. $15 is deserved because it's us, all the workers, who keep the store running.

Nina Bailey, Burnsville Bojangles worker: Bojangles has showed us that they value their profits more than they value their employees. Just think about it — people caught COVID at work, and the company didn't even give them paid sick days while they were in quarantine. Bojangles has the power to give us a safer environment, paid sick days, and they can afford to pay all of us at least $15/hour, with all the profit that we bring in at our store. This was our first time going on strike, and it feels good to stand up. I hope other workers here in Western North Carolina see what we're doing and know that they can stand up for their rights too.

Misty Campbell, Burnsville Bojangles worker: Bojangles' management has told me that this job should come first, and my family should come second. I hear this when they ask me to stay late or come in for unscheduled shifts, and I explain that I need to be home taking care of my grandchildren. Bojangles is wrong about that. For us workers, family comes first. Especially our families' health. That's why I went on strike with my daughters, Caitlin and Patricia. We are standing up as a family to demand a change from Bojangles. We are living paycheck to paycheck, with no health insurance. We've been promised raises that never showed up on our paychecks. We need union rights, so we can be heard. With union rights, we could demand that Bojangles give us paid sick days, health insurance, and treat our families with respect.

Jamey Gunter, Burnsville Bojangles worker: I've had two heart attacks. I can't afford the health insurance that the company claims to offer — none of us workers can — because it would take up our entire check. So I have to rely on charity medical care. I spend $200 each month on my medications, and my paycheck is only $300. I work hard running three stations inside Bojangles' kitchen. I'm a dedicated employee and I give my all to this job, but Bojangles is not taking care of us in return. We need health care, more respect, and more money from this billion-dollar company we're working for. The only way we are going to get these things is by organizing and staying united as workers. That's why we're on strike.

Sarah Banks, Burnsville Bojangles worker: We need a change at Bojangles; workers are exhausted. As a 17-year-old, this is one of my first jobs. The last three nights that I worked, I had panic attacks the entire night. I was so stressed out because we don't have enough workers to keep up, and at the same time I was worrying about COVID in the store. Workplaces shouldn't be miserable places, where you have to take a deep breath just to force yourself to go inside. I went on strike because jobs aren't supposed to make you have panic attacks, scared that you might get sick at work.  If I could go up to Bojangles headquarters, I would tell the CEO to come down here and work with us, and see how much stress we are under every single day. We can't work like this and be grateful for making $10/hour. I'm not gonna lie, I was super nervous the day we went on strike. But I felt all the love and support that people have shown us since we walked out.  Now I want to tell other young people not to be scared to go on strike. Workers my age, I think we can change how work is viewed. My generation can organize our workplaces and change everything for the better.

Cierra Brown, Durham fast-food worker and NC Raise Up member: We drove four hours from Durham to Burnsville, because we wanted to make sure the strikers knew they weren't alone. We understand what the Burnsville workers are fighting for because we are in their same shoes, demanding the same things. The Bojangles CEO and the people in power at all these corporations should be nervous. They should be nervous because we showed that workers in Durham are standing with workers in Burnsville, and vice versa. The bosses at all these big corporations want us to be divided as workers. They try to divide us by race, by gender, by anything to keep us from talking to each other. They want us to hate one another. But with NC Raise Up, we are coming together and organizing everybody. We accept all working people into this movement no matter what age or sexual orientation or color they may be. It makes us strong, so we can get the job done! When we drove away after the Bojangles' protest, the store was shut down. That should remind Bojangles' that they are nothing without their workers. Seeing that their strike closed down the store was a great feeling. It felt like a win for all of us.

As we head back to work after this strike, we are going to keep organizing to push for our demands. No matter what happens next, we will stay united as workers. We know that we are part of something bigger than just our store, and that gives us power.