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Meet Shymara Jones, a leader in the minimum-wage fight

Two years ago, fast-food worker Shymara Jones was a single mother, living with her mother, siblings, and son in a three-bedroom rowhouse on a worn-down block in the non-gentrified part of Grays Ferry, hard by warehouses and refineries.

Jones working the window at the Popeyes at Broad and Catharine, where she has worked since 2009 and makes $8.50 an hour.
Jones working the window at the Popeyes at Broad and Catharine, where she has worked since 2009 and makes $8.50 an hour.Read moreCLEM MURRAY / Staff Photographer

Two years ago, fast-food worker Shymara Jones was a single mother, living with her mother, siblings, and son in a three-bedroom rowhouse on a worn-down block in the non-gentrified part of Grays Ferry, hard by warehouses and refineries.

None of that has changed, but everything is different.

Same small house, same small street, same Popeyes at Broad and Catharine Streets where Jones, 22, has worked since 2009.

But in that time, Jones visited the Eiffel Tower.

She met fast-food workers in Brussels, picketed corporate meetings in Chicago - twice - shook hands with politicians, led marches down Broad Street, and plans to rally outside the McDonald's annual meeting this week.

A high school graduate with a year of college, she gained an education in economics, in the workings of corporations, in labor law, in franchises, in networking, in forming alliances.

She organized protests and rallies, working the microphone at City Hall to address hundreds - maybe thousands - of people.

"Just me and you out there, what do you think they're going to call us? But if there are thousands of us out there shutting the street down, they're going to have to say something," Jones said. "The more we do that, the more we'll get our voices heard."

Shymara Jones doesn't match the acclaim of labor organizers Mother Jones or Cesar Chavez.

Not yet.

But Jones' life tells the story of how involvement in the labor movement can change a life beyond a paycheck. It parallels the story of how the fast-food workers' efforts are reinspiring the nation's struggling labor movement.

In Philadelphia, Jones has become the lead worker organizing the city's fast-food efforts in between shifts at Popeyes, where, as shift supervisor, she sometimes works the takeout window.

She's a member of the National Organizing Committee of the Fight for $15 movement, seeded by the Service Employees International Union. It's unpaid, but when there is a strike, she will get strike wages to help compensate for the few hours of work she may lose, officials said.

"I don't want to get rich," Jones said, as she got ready to start a recent shift at Popeyes. "I just want to live.

"Don't get me wrong, some rich people do give money to charity, which is good, but some rich mothers like these CEOs just keep all the money to themselves," she said. "For what? They put it all back in the stock market? Doesn't that sound selfish? Give the money away - like to us. Give me the money. I need it."

Jones laid out her finances: She brings home less than $600 a month from Popeyes, supplementing her wages with $300 a month in food stamps and styling hair on the side. Government-subsidized child care costs her $80 a month. Her share of utilities comes to $105 a month and her phone bill runs $75. She carries $15,000 in student debt.

Her mother would like her to kick in $110 toward the rent. That hasn't happened, but Jones helps when she can.

The youngest of five, Jones grew up in the Tasker Homes projects.

"None of our dads was ever around," she said. Her mother eventually got a good government job, but before that, "she was working in a fast-food restaurant. It's a simple fact that my mom didn't have a good job to move us out of the 'hood.

"Even though we lived in the projects, we didn't live like we lived in the projects," she said. "Our house was nice. It was well-kept up. Dinner was on the table at 6 p.m."

A cheerleader and member of the yearbook committee, Jones graduated from South Philadelphia High School. A year of college at Kutztown University followed - major: criminal justice.

Then Jones got pregnant and eventually came home.

All the while, she kept her high school job at Popeyes.

"I love my job, I do. I love my customers. I love my students that come in here. They call me Miss Shymara. My customers respect me more than my boss does, and I love that about them."

Other aspects of her job weren't so good. Former managers hit on the young female workers. There was favoritism in promotions and assigning hours. "I wanted to go on strike, even before I met Fight for $15," she said. "If SEPTA can do it and get what they want, we can, too."

Instead, she and a coworker went to Community Legal Services, where a lawyer told her she had no case. The lawyer, instead, handed her a phone number for labor organizer Mindy Isser.

At that time, Isser was on the ground, working to establish the Fight for $15 movement in Philadelphia, piggybacking off the effort that began in Manhattan in 2012. There was a rally planned at a McDonald's at Broad and Allegheny in April 2014, and Isser told Jones to come up.

Jones did.

"There were people who didn't work at my job who were facing the same problems," Jones said. "Their story was my story. I wanted to know more."

Jones began to learn about the fast-food movement in other states and how companies and franchises relate and the interplay of wages and the economy.

As Jones' involvement grew, she was selected to travel to meet with fast-food workers in Belgium and France in January.

"They work at the same companies we work at, like McDonald's, that pays them a livable wage. Yes. They pay them more than $15 an hour. I was saying, 'Wow' and while I was saying 'Wow,' she was saying, 'That's insane that you all get paid that little.' "

Over time, Jones gained confidence in her speaking abilities.

"Not a lot of young people my age want to speak out," she said. "If people don't ever speak out, this world is going to be the same as it has been since we were born."

She also learned the importance of allies - teaming up with adjunct professors organizing to join a union and home- and child-care workers, also earning close to minimum wage.

Meeting people wasn't a problem. "I've been working at fast food, so my customer-service skills are great," Jones said. "Smile, greet people. They are human beings. They are probably supporting us."

"She comes across as quiet and shy," said Kendall Fells, an SEIU official dispatched from the union to lead the Fight for $15 movement and coordinate the National Organizing Committee of workers such as Jones.

"She has blossomed into one of the biggest leaders in the campaign," he said.

A month after Jones got involved, she went on her first strike, walking off her job at Popeyes, joining others in Philadelphia and in as many as 150 U.S. cities on May 15, 2014.

The next day, Jones got a raise, from $7.25 to $7.50. She now earns $8.50 an hour, receiving her most recent raise after a strike last month.

"That's how I know we had the power of the people," Jones said.

When she returned to work after the 2014 strike, her manager sat her down and they talked. "It was basically, like, 'You are hurting my business. I look at you like a sister. If you need anything, you can come to me.'

She responded: " 'It's not about you or your business. I can't take my son out. I can't take him to the zoo. I can't move out of my mother's house.'

"I had an organizing conversation with him, basically saying, if we make more, you'll make more. That's the moral of the story."

At first, Jones said, the moral didn't make sense. Opponents of raising the minimum wage don't think so. They say rising wages will push companies to raise prices, cut hours, cut jobs, and automate.

That argument isn't lost on Jones. So, how could it be, she wondered, that paying fast-food workers such as her $15 an hour, instead of the $8.50 she now earns, would actually turn into more revenue for her Popeyes at Broad and Catharine Streets?

Life gave her an answer.

"What I noticed was, the first week of the month, my job is busy. And that's only because most people only get money from the government every first week of the month.

"If you have money, you'll spend it.

"Popeyes is expensive. Making $8.50 an hour, I can't buy a meal from Popeyes and feed my family," she said. "Say I'm making $15 an hour, then I can take my son to Popeyes to eat. I love the food."