Durham, NC

Southern Service Workers Strike to Demand Safe Jobs

The Triangle Tribune

Service workers in Durham, Atlanta and Columbia, South Carolina, rallied on Tuesday.Photo byCourtesy

Staff Reports

Fast food, retail and warehouse workers walked off their jobs in three southern states Tuesday to protest against dangerous working conditions. Their union also filed a groundbreaking civil rights complaint alleging South Carolina’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration “engages in egregious discrimination based on race” by failing to inspect workplaces with disproportionately Black workforces.

The complaint, filed by the Union of Southern Service Workers, with the U.S. Department of Labor’s Civil Rights Center, charges SC OSHA violated Title VI of the Civil Rights Act by “exposing Black workers to an unacceptable and inequitable risk of injuries and illness.”

“SC OSHA neglects key industries whose workforce is 42% black employees, while focusing the vast majority of its programmed inspections on industries made up of only 18% black workers,” the complaint argues.

“I've worked at Popeye's for about six months, and I've been burned at least six times. I have marks all over my arms from the burns because Popeye’s doesn’t have splash guards on the fryers or long, protective gloves. We have no first-aid kit, and most of my co-workers have been burned, too,” said Amber Biggs, a Popeye’s worker in Columbia, South Carolina, who filed an OSHA complaint and is on strike.

At clamorous noontime strike lines in Columbia, Durham and Atlanta, workers took megaphones to testify about their personal experiences. They highlighted a safety crisis in the service industry and said the system for protecting workers is failing them. Worker after worker echoed the demand for “health and safety at work” — one of the union’s universal demands for all service industry employers.

Blocked fire exits are another alarmingly common problem across employers, sparking memories of the tragic 1991 Hamlet fire in North Carolina. Dollar General’s repeated violations of fire safety standards in Florida and Georgia have garnered media attention, and Dollar Tree, which owns Family Dollar, was fined in February for identical safety violations. Despite national attention on these problems, Dollar Store workers say their stores remain overrun with safety hazards and their complaints are going unanswered.

Workplace violence is a constant threat for many service workers. Forty-two percent of respondents have experienced some kind of workplace violence or harassment in the last year, according to the SOC survey. Striking workers point out that they feel particularly unsafe when employers reduce staffing to maximize profits.

Understaffing can mean workers are left alone, often at night, in stores that are frequent targets for robbery. “I’ve worked in fast food, retail, warehouses, and home care. I can tell you for a fact that service industry jobs are not safe or healthy for workers,” said Eshawney Gaston, who is on strike from her job at Church’s Chicken in Durham, where she is paid $9 an hour. “On my first day, Church’s management told me I would have to work alone in the store. I would not feel safe being alone in the store, especially at night, with no security. These companies understaff stores to save money, but it’s dangerous for us!”

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The Triangle Tribune is a part of The Charlotte Post Publishing Company. We are a multimedia conglomerate that covers the Triangle's African American community in community news, business, HBCU sports, health, and arts and lifestyle since March 1998.

Durham, NC

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