Meshon Payton, a fast food eatery employee, traveled from Durham to Winston-Salem Tuesday to march with a small group of others down Patterson Avenue for what he believes is “only right.”
“They’re getting paid unfair wages at their facility. I think they should get paid for what they do to help other people and they should be treated better,” said Payton, who is part of group of grassroots activists from across the state who came to town to support a campaign aimed at pushing hospitals to pay workers more.
Will Cox organized the event, which began with remarks by a litany of spirited speakers at Lloyd Presbyterian Church before it spread to the streets for the march. Cox’s call to action was answered by members of groups like Raise up for $15, a fast food workers advocacy group, and the educators group Organize 2020.
Speakers and marchers singled out Winston-Salem-based Novant Health, which runs 15 hospitals and hundreds of clinics and outpatient facilities in the Carolinians and Virginia.
Cox, a radiology technician at Novant, said the company offers limited job security, low pay and poor access to health care for many of its workers, especially those in areas like Food and Nutrition, Transportation and Housekeeping.
“In any workplace, workers rights are important,” Cox said. “When we are talking about healthcare, we’re talking about life and death. If you are being paid poverty wages and you barely have enough to get by, that is inhumane,” he said.
But Cox was the only Novant employee on hand speaking out, at least no others publicly indicated that they worked for the company when a speaker asked them to identify themselves.
Cox and others are calling for a minimum wage of at least $15 – nearly $5 more than even Democrats in Congress are considering. He enlisted local heavy-hitters for the cause. Speakers included noted local activists Rev. Carlton A.G. Eversley, Larry Little and Linda Sutton.
“We have to organize. Corporate profits are out of the roof and the workers wages have just flat-lined,” said Little, a Winston-Salem State professor well known for leading the local Black Panther Party in the 1970s and working to exonerate Darryl Hunt for murder in the ’80s and ’90s. “The union movement in this country is what built the middle class.”
The group marched from the church to the site of the former Reynolds Tobacco factory near Fifth Street, where in the 1940s a group of mostly black workers went on strike to demand better pay and working conditions. A historic marker was erected at the site in 2013, denoting the significance of Local 22. Cox, who has perviously been involved in the Occupy Winston-Salem movement, helped to facilitate the honor.
Denise Mihal, president and CEO of Forsyth Medical Center (a Novant hospital in Winston-Salem), said in a statement Tuesday that as one of the area’s top employers, Novant places great value on its workers.
“We greatly value our employees and their commitment to provide remarkable care and to improve the health of the communities we serve,” the statement reads. “We are proud to offer our employees comprehensive and competitive benefits, including medical, dental, vision, disability, life insurance, flexible spending accounts and a retirement plan.”
Mihal said many workers who provide services like housekeeping and food and nutrition are contracted through other companies and are not employed by Novant Health.
“Novant Health requires all contractors to strictly follow wage and hour laws. It is our expectation that contractors offer market competitive salaries and benefit packages.”