Above photo: Fighting for dignity, respect, and a livable wage. Bettie Douglas, age 63. Al Neal / People’s World.
The rank and file workers that came before us said a union was not the union hall nor the labor temple, nor was it the elected union officials that come and go. The union was its people—the honest, hardworking membership.
Comrades of sweat and toil pushed and prodded too far for the sake of an industrial tyrant’s profits. Workers who reached a point and said, “enough is enough,” who joined together, demanded change, and organized.
And in the current moment of economic turmoil and political upheaval, workers are experiencing quaint evocations of moments gone by—as if looking through an open window and scanning through the decades of militant union history, scouring the past to understand and confront today’s clear and present danger.
But if power lies in the hands of the workers, recorded history has forgotten, in some places, the thousands of unknown rank and file members who ensured victory for the leaders we now hold in high regard.
Of course, there is a sense of simplicity when it comes to writing about those exciting flash pan moments. On the other hand, the day to day struggles of working people shouldn’t be seen as dull, drab, and boring—as is often the case.
While some may say the daily routine lives of ordinary working people lack the glamor or heroism found on a picket line, in reality, their lives can’t be contained to their actions at a particular demonstration or strike, or solely through the lens of union membership.
For fast-food workers active in the Fight for $15 and a Union, it isn’t only a movement or a non-traditional union, and Black Lives Matter isn’t only a chant—it is their life in entirety.
And this is the life of Bettie Douglas, 63.
A daughter, mother, sister, union member, activist, and fast food worker leader.
At 5:03 p.m., Douglas, now off the clock, pushes open the marked exit door with her one free hand. The other is too busy holding her purse, light blue jacket, and a frosty caffeinated beverage. As has become customary thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic, the moment she is fully outside and away from other people, her hand darts quickly and deftly to her chin, lowering the crinkled blue Johnson and Johnson face covering. She pauses and takes a deep breath of fresh air.
Walking with her shoulders back, head held high, she meets me in the parking lot, says hello, and moves her eyeglasses up onto her forehead. “I’m sure you can see those big dark circles and bags under my eyes the second I take my glasses off,” she said, a small grin appearing.
And it’s true. Her eyes look tired. Worn down a bit from a lifetime of struggle, work, and activism. But if you look closer, past the “dark circles” as she put it, you find deeply set, almost immutable white-hot embers of conviction and passion.
Her cellphone rings. She lets me know it’s her brother calling to make sure she’s ok and asking whether she needs a ride home. Her car was in the shop for some minor collision repair.
Looking around her McDonald’s store, I notice it’s one of the newer store designs. Gone are the 1990s style of colorful exterior walls, illuminated “PlayPlace” signs, and the Ronald McDonald clown statue, seated at a bench, leg crossed over the other, a smile painted on his face, his arm inviting you to take a seat, and snap a Polaroid—a place where childhood memories were made. In its place are modern grey walls, lots of windows, and a more corporate café feel.
Moments after hanging up the phone and sliding it back into its case and then into her purse, Douglas turns to me, and before I even asked my first question said, “You know, I appreciate the people who are concerned about us and want us to be able to earn a livable wage and to be treated with equality and respect…because we do matter, Black lives matter, and we just want to be treated like our lives do [matter]…”
Sincerity was in her voice. The fear, the worry, and stress of being a Black American in this period of unrest and injustice. And it’s something, unfortunately, that she has had to experience her entire life.
Douglass was born and raised in St. Louis, and you could hear it when she spoke. The typical St. Louis inflections accompanied by a slow Southern drawl—the voice of a storyteller.
“I have five brothers and three sisters, with one adopted sister,” she said, “and although we all had a hard life, we also had a blessed life thanks to good parents teaching us to be respectful of others, but above all else, to respect ourselves.”
I asked if she could tell me more about her blessed life and why she mentioned her family’s trials and tribulations.
“Well, life was hard because my father only had a third-grade education. He had to stop going to school to help his mother, my grandmother, because his father wasn’t in his life. So, it ended up being my mother who taught him how to read and write, and from there he joined the service, married my mother, and had us kids. But after the service, finding a good job without a formal education was hard…
“But my father was a hard worker. I had never known my father to miss a day of work, even when he was sick. And they taught us to be hard workers. My parents did the best they could and always worked together, but it wasn’t always perfect.”
Growing up during the tail end of the Civil Rights movement, Douglas said her childhood was full of learning lessons, moments of shock and fear, and times when she directly faced hate and racism. Her father’s family originated in New Orleans, Louisiana. Every other summer break, Douglas would go down to spend time with her grandmother. It was during one of those summers that she began to see more of the world’s ugly side.
“One summer day, we decided to visit uptown New Orleans, the nicer area,” she said, “and as we kept walking and walking, I eventually got thirsty. Now mind you I was only a little girl and didn’t know much about how segregated things were. I just wanted a drink of water…
“So, when my grandmother got caught up talking with someone, I slipped away to get a drink from a fountain. Out of nowhere, I hear my grandmother shouting ‘No, no, no!’ and she pulled me away. I was about to drink from the ‘WHITES ONLY’ water fountain.”
She said her grandmother tried explaining it to her, but she just didn’t get it, yet.
At the age of 12, Douglas started working after school in her family’s cleaning business. With her father’s job at the St. Louis waste management department, plus the extra work income, eventually, her family became one of the first Black families in the upper middle class, yet mostly white, neighborhood of Greendale. And even though their move took place in the mid-’70s, racism was still alive and well.
“My first real experience with racism came after we moved. I remember waiting at the bus stop, or walking home from school and getting harassed all the time…. I was called the N-word, a monkey, trash. They called me and my brothers and sisters every slur in the book.”
Many nights they would find their home egged, its windows broken, and toilet paper streaming in the trees and over their front yard.
“I remember my father once told us a story about his cousin. This story he told came from what we were dealing with at that the time,” she said. “Well his cousin down in Louisiana was in a relationship with a white woman. It was a mutual relationship, and they were happy. Well so happens that when they were found out, these white guys, members of the Ku Klux Klan probably, kidnapped him, wrapped a thick chain around him, hitched it to the back of their truck, and dragged him up and down the street until he died.”
She stops suddenly, tears forming at the corner of her tired eyes. She breaths in slow and heavy. She lifts her eyes towards the heavens.
“His body and brain, whatever was left of him were spread across the streets. My father and his family would go out every day after that to try and find pieces of him…but they could never find him…”
It was those moments and those horror stories that, to this day, stay with her. They are also part of the reason why she is who she is: a fighter.
“We were taught to always stand up for something, not to sit down for nothing. It’s how my father lived, and it’s how we live too.”
Into the fight for $15 and a Union, and a Strike for Black Lives
Douglas’s entry into the working world of fast food came out of necessity.
“After my mother passed and my father started getting sick, I decided to go back home and help take care of him.” She set aside her 15-year career as a receptionist. “Things were so tight and so bad that I had to get back out to the workforce and start earning money to take care of what he needed, and McDonald’s was the first place that hired me. I had to help my dad take care of the household, and then take care of my father—he took care of us.
“I had a choice to make, go off and have my career, or stay back and take care of the family, and settle for something less. I decided to settle for something less to help my family. Family comes first.”
When she did take the job at McDonald’s, she was still living out in St. Louis County, and the location the company placed her at was in the city, at South Broadway and Interstate 55.
“I had to take two busses and a train to get to work,” she said. “A total of almost eight hours travel for only four hours of work.” A 12-hour day for four hours’ pay.
She had been asking and asking for full-time hours, but her requests went ignored. Douglas felt it had to do with a little “incident” she had with management. During one of her four-hour shifts, her manager asked her to first sweep the store floors and then wipe off food crumbs from the tables onto the just-swept floor.
“I wasn’t going to double work myself,” she said. “So I told them, ‘No, I’ll wipe off the tables first, and then sweep the floors.’”
That little pushback against backward instructions was enough for management to label her as trouble. And trouble, in the form of organizing, was indeed brewing.
Her store had been visited by an organizer from Show Me $15, the local Fight for $15 affiliate, a few times, and every time the organizer would ask if she was ready to join and fight for a living wage and what she deserved. She would always reply: “Not right now; I need this job.”
But the tide of activism was rolling in, and soon her store was beset by a powerful picket line.
“So I was working the drive-thru window when the strike came through, and I started cheering them on. I was hanging halfway out the window, and this reporter asked me for an interview, and I said I couldn’t afford to lose my job, but I can speak from this window. So I did my first interview through the window, and I was so happy because I was finally able to express how I felt, to talk about the mistreatment, the lack of pay, the overwork, the lack of respect…
“And I got so motivated, I joined and have been with the Fight for $15 ever since.”
As Douglas became more involved with the movement, she had the opportunity to visit her fast-food comrades in Brazil. There, she saw little children working. They were so “burned and had so many scars.” It showed her how cruel and heartless this multi-million-dollar company was.
“It just cemented the need to fight for these kids, and all workers.”
She fights not only for workers, though, but also for the whole Black community—her community—which faces police brutality, racism, and economic hardships. It has done so since day one of coming by slave ships to the American Colonies, now the United States.
She was out in Ferguson, along with the entire Show Me $15 crew, night after night following the killing of Mike Brown. And even then, she felt that these police killings would keep happening.
“They [elected officials and Trump supporters] aren’t getting the message. I think more Black lives will die before anything happens. I’ve experienced racism all my life, and I still don’t think it’s over… as sad as it sounds,” she said.
For her, joining the fight for economic justice and racial justice was a no brainer. “You can’t have one without the other, it’s all connected.”
As she mentioned, the whole fast food movement is working and finding new ways to link the Black Lives Matter movement with theirs, because they are all committed to fighting non-stop until Black life truly matters and all workers are treated with dignity and respect.
There is, however, a personal reason for why Douglass so committed to the fight.
“I have three sons, two grandsons, and a granddaughter,” she said. “And my son, who’s 20, has autism. I worry every day that he might get stopped by the police, and him not understanding exactly what they are saying, I don’t know what they would do to him, I am very concerned….
“Those officers who killed George Floyd knew what they were doing. He said he couldn’t breathe, and they still pressed a knee into his neck killing him. They didn’t care…that’s pure hate. They had him, they could have taken him to jail and kept him alive. They knew he was struggling, and they didn’t stop.”
We took a pause. She wiped her tears.
“I think about it every day… It could be someone in my family or my kids or grandkids, and I think about that, and I pray because it could be any of us…and I just can’t imagine losing a child. I don’t know if I would make it through that.”
For those of you reading this, take a moment to think about how your life would feel day in and day out if you carried that burden—if everywhere you went you had to think, “Will this be my last moment alive? Will it be the last moment of someone in my family?
If it’s unbearable, and you can’t begin to imagine what that must be like, then do something about it.
“Now it’s time, there needs to be change, and there will be change,” said Douglas. “Because after all these years of racism, abuse, and slavery, it’s time for a change, and we all, I mean all of us, need to fight for it.”