Sharon Thomas-Ellison works hard for her paychecks at Jimmy John’s. On occasion when no one else is available, the 19-year-old has worked from 11 in the morning until 1 a.m. at night with just a 30-minute break — and it’s okay, she says, she needs the extra income.

After a long day’s work on her feet, often working split shifts, the St. Louis resident goes home to the one-bedroom apartment she shares with her brother, who also works for Jimmy John’s, a fast food sandwich chain that’s become a billion-dollar a year enterprise with more than 1,500 stores nationwide. It’s a struggle to pay the monthly bills and keep up with basic necessities, she says, plus she and her brother use part of their incomes to help out Thomas-Ellison’s stepmom, who’s employed as a driver at Jimmy John’s. Thomas-Ellison says she wants to “get to a point where every month isn’t a debate as to whether we can buy a box of cereal or a salad. We need food that can nourish us…right now, me and my brother live off of peanut butter, bread and cereal.”

Watching her family work so hard and still struggle with basic needs was incentive enough for Thomas-Ellison to join her fellow St. Louis fast food workers to fight for better wages earlier this year. She was one of more than 100 fast food workers who joined two days of action and strikes in early May to call for a living wage and to bring attention to the realities of trying to survive on minimum wage, which is $7.35 an hour in Missouri.

Remarkably, Thomas-Ellison tells me that even though she was the only worker from her Jimmy John’s location to join the strike, she wasn’t worried about retaliation — “I’m one of the hardest workers there,” she said. And her actions, along with the support of community and faith leaders, made a difference: When she returned to work after the strike, everyone at her store got a 25-cent raise. In fact, soon she’ll begin management training.

Thomas-Ellison says she’ll continue to organize with her fellow fast food workers via the St. Louis Can’t Survive on $7.35 campaign — “I want it so the next generation doesn’t have to struggle as much, so I’m going to keep doing my part.”

“Living paycheck to paycheck really starts to wear you down to a point where I had to do something,” she said. “As we get more workers…I think it’s a definite possibility (that we can make a difference). We may not be the biggest, but we have a lot of outspoken people, so I definitely think it’s a possibility. In fact, I think this will happen.”

Profits and struggles

Fast food rakes in about $170 billion a year in the United States — in 2009 alone, the industry spent more than $4.2 billion just on advertising. And in Missouri this year, all restaurants, including fast food, are projected to ring up $9.1 billion in sales, according to the National Restaurant Association. Yet many fast food workers are living in poverty, hardly able to support themselves and their families without public assistance.

So on the heels of striking fast food workers in New York City and Chicago, St. Louis fast food workers were inspired to join the growing movement for a living wage and convened an informal workers union, the St. Louis Organizing Committee, said Rev. Martin Rafanan, community director of St. Louis Can’t Survive on $7.35 and co-chair of the St. Louis Workers’ Rights Board at Missouri Jobs with Justice, which is helping spearhead the fast food campaign. Once the organizing process got rolling in late February, it was only eight weeks until workers went on strike, Rafanan said. During two days of strikes in early May, more than 100 fast food workers from more than 30 restaurant locations walked out to demand better wages and the right to organize.

“Growing income inequality is really detrimental to our communities, and we need to put that money in the hands of people who actually spend the money and move the economy,” Rafanan told me, noting that just one more dollar per hour would put an extra $2,200 in the hands of workers who spend it locally. “These workers value family and value work…and they should get a fair wage, especially when these companies can afford to pay it.”

St. Louis workers are campaigning for a living wage of $15 an hour. However, Rafanan added that “we know workers won’t get that without a contract, without representation, without the opportunity to form a union without retaliation.”

Community support

During the strikes, none of the participating workers lost their jobs. And that’s because workers weren’t standing alone — over 100 community and faith leaders joined the days of action and accompanied workers back to their jobs after the strike. The move meant restaurant management knew that the community would be watching for any retaliation or blowback. In fact, the walk-backs sometimes helped open up dialogue between workers and management, Rafanan said.

“We believe in St. Louis that workers can’t win by themselves, they need community support,” Rafanan said.

Rabbi Susan Talve, founding rabbi of St. Louis’ Central Reform Congregation, was among the community leaders who joined the protests and walked strikers back to the their jobs. Such support made a very real difference. For example, Talve told me a story about Brittany, a worker at a local Arby’s who joined the strike. After the strike, Talve and other community leaders walked Brittany back to work to find that management had cut her hours. But when management saw Brittany wasn’t alone, she promptly got her hours back. Every once in a while, Talve still stops by the Arby’s to check in on Brittany — “she’s the one taking the risk, but I want her to know that I have her back,” she said.

“We were part of it, but the real leadership is coming from these workers,” Talve said. “For someone living on the edge, to risk their jobs — it really took a lot. It was a huge ask.”

Rafanan said leaders and organizers hope to quickly double the number of workers participating in the campaign, “but we know it’s a slow process, there’s still a lot of fear. These are jobs that don’t pay much, but workers need the money.” Another goal is to form a union, though what such a union would look like or how it would function is a whole new frontier.

“It’s going to be very challenging,” Rafanan said. “That’s why a movement like this is so important, because we know that how we organized yesterday won’t work today.”

Nineteen-year-old Rasheen Aldridge, who’s worked at a St. Louis Jimmy John’s (not the same location as Thomas-Ellison) for about a year and a half, challenges anyone to step into the shoes of a fast food worker.

“If anyone thinks that a fast food worker can survive off $7.35, they should try to live the life of a worker with two kids,” he said.

Aldridge, who had previously worked on minimum wage efforts at Missouri Jobs with Justice, helped recruit three other workers from his workplace to join the May strikes. Among the issues he said he’s dealt with is being denigrated by management in front of co-workers and having work hours abruptly cut. He told me about once watching a co-worker look at her paycheck with tears in her eyes — “she works seven days a week and it’s not even enough to make rent.”

“Once I saw something like that, I thought we really need to get serious,” he said. “Every day, we’re busting our butts to make sure the grills are cleaned, the floor is cleaned…and we still come in with a smile on our faces. These companies are making a lot of money, but what about the workers? We just want to survive.”

It takes a lot of courage for workers to walk out, especially in fast food, Aldridge said. But when he saw that so many workers and community members had come out to join the strikers, “you got past the nervous part and it all just clicked.”

Aldridge told me that while he might not see the benefits of the living wage campaign, he hopes it benefits the next generation of workers.

“It’s powerful and it’s all about relationships among workers,” he said. “We’re not New York, we’re not Chicago, but we still have a voice. It made us feel like we can do this too.”

To learn more about St. Louis Can’t Survive on $7.35, click here or follow the campaign on Twitter. And visit their Facebook page to see photos from the May strikes.

Kim Krisberg is a freelance public health writer living in Austin, Texas, and has been writing about public health for more than a decade.