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Wage fight propels worker from KFC to White House

NEW YORK (AP) - Naquasia LeGrand was frying chicken, sweeping floors and serving customers for $7.25 an hour when she was recruited by union organizers to join a campaign for higher pay.

In the 15 months since, the 22-year-old KFC employee from Brooklyn has become one of the most visible faces of a movement that has staged strikes across the country demanding a $15-an-hour wage and union representation for fast-food workers.

She promoted the cause on "The Colbert Report," joined a strategy session with congressional Democrats and visited President Barack Obama at the White House.

"We never thought it would even get this far," LeGrand said. "We're just sick and tired of being sick and tired."

When LeGrand was first approached by organizers of the group Fast Food Forward, her grandmother told her to stay away from unions. "She just heard 'union' and thought maybe, like, I was going to lose my job or something."

"But you know, sometimes kids don't listen to their grandmas."

Her life has been a whirlwind since. She started organizing small fast-food protests and flash strikes in the city, and eventually in more than 100 cities across the country. A newspaper profile of her led to the Jan. 16 appearance on "Colbert," and that led to her trip to Washington.

She laughed when host Stephen Colbert asked, "Are you at all afraid the colonel might come after you?"

But she stuck to her talking points.

"I worked at two KFCs and still couldn't make it," she told him. "These corporations are making billions and billions of dollars," she added later.

"It's an opportunity for me to represent all of the workers around the country," she said in an interview last week. "So I got to make sure I do things right, make sure I get our message out there, what we want, what's our demands and, you know, set it straight."

While these have indeed been heady days, the reality for LeGrand is as close as her next shift at KFC, where she tries to make enough to get by in one of the nation's most expensive cities.

Six feet tall with cheeks that dimple when she smiles, LeGrand was interviewed near the two-bedroom apartment in Canarsie she shares with her grandmother and other family members. She said she was tired after closing the store at 1:40 a.m. and making it home at around 4 a.m. thanks to a complicated subway commute.

Most weeks LeGrand works just 15 hours. She had a second job at another KFC but it closed, so now she has lots of time for organizing other fast-food employees.

"The first thing I ask them is 'What's your biggest issue?'" LeGrand said. "'Talk to me first.'"

Kendall Fells, the organizing director of Fast Food Forward, said LeGrand runs citywide meetings and deserves credit for building much of the campaign in New York.

Last month, LeGrand was invited along with other fast food workers to watch as Obama signed an executive order requiring federal contractors to pay $10.10 an hour.

"I don't care if I was in the back, I was in the White House with the president in front of me!" she said.

She also attended the House Democratic Retreat in Cambridge, Md., and spoke at a workshop on raising the minimum wage moderated by Rep. Keith Ellison of Minnesota.

"Movements will throw up leaders," Ellison said. "This low-wage worker movement has thrown up Naquasia."

Restaurant industry representatives say the campaign's demands are unrealistic. "Economics won't allow for a $15-an-hour wage," said Jay Perron, vice president of government affairs and public policy for the International Franchise Association, which represents franchise owners.

Perron would not address LeGrand's specific situation but said entry-level fast food jobs can lead to something better.

"These jobs can turn into really good, high-paying jobs if you go from an hourly worker to a manager," he said.

KFC spokesman Rick Maynard said franchisees pay competitive wages and provide training and development so employees have an opportunity to build their careers.

Backers of Fast Food Forward say the chance to advance in the industry is minuscule. The National Employment Law Project, citing data collected by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, says just 2.2 percent of jobs in the fast food industry are in managerial, professional, or technical occupations.

LeGrand said she likes serving people but never planned a career at KFC.

She once thought of studying graphic design but now sees herself more as an organizer. She even won over her once-skeptical grandmother, who now proudly introducers LeGrand as "my granddaughter, the activist."

"I have a good way of talking to people," LeGrand said. "So maybe that's why the movement kind of worked out. I talk too much."

Join the discussion

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karenkstang512 March 02 2014 at 4:15 PM

My first job was well below minimum wage. I joined the United States Marines. It was perfect for me as I served my country while getting experience on the job. After the service, I was able to get a good job. It certainly didn't pay top dollar, but as I learned thejob and and showed my superiors that I was dependable and honest, I started getting pay increases. I recently retired and it was from that first job that I got after the Marines.

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wcivyman March 02 2014 at 5:48 PM

better off spending her spare time getting some more education so she can get a better job.

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1 reply
summerctz wcivyman March 02 2014 at 6:04 PM

Funny, I was thinking the same. If she has all this time and energy to "complain", then maybe she could get an education and a better job.

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ectullis March 02 2014 at 5:54 PM

The dumbing down of the country started with affirmative action and culminated in what we have in the "White House".

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raptureus210 March 02 2014 at 10:32 PM

Why is it that most people only have one objective in mind. That is to get what I need and the heck with everything else. They need to understand by raising the minium wage during this crisis effect jobs creation and promotes automation.

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genegene002 March 02 2014 at 6:21 PM

$15 per hour for fast food employees? REALLY? I dont think thats going to happen anytime soon! Last time I checked working fast food was not a career its usually a first job for alot of people and some use it to get money to go through college. If you really want more money there are still a FEW jobs out there to get it but you will have to work for it!

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floatgod March 02 2014 at 6:44 PM

No thought of improving one's self. I need more money so just give it to me! Why go to school? Why try to improve your lot on your own? Just latch on to a union rep and you are on your way. This is the American way! Through a union!

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1 reply
Tom floatgod March 02 2014 at 6:59 PM

The unions had helped to push our manufacturing jobs overseas after Clinton had given the corporations the easy way out with NAFTA. Now they will screw up the few jobs that are left.

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compton1032 March 02 2014 at 10:29 PM

Does anyone else find is a bit strange or amusing (Child humor) that it's a Chicken restaurant worker taking the cause to the WH? A Union ploy? I'm surprised they didn't team up with a Popeye's employee also!

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rgm012153 March 02 2014 at 10:26 PM

I retired for the Navy over 20 years ago I found out quickly that no one gave a damn that you could command hundreds of men and women make the computations to feed 25 thousand meals a day with little more than a pencil and paper. I left the Navy as a Master Chief and the best I could do was a 5.00 hour job, for the first few years, in 1996 I moved to California where I got 9.62 a hour today I earn nearly 100 thousand dollars a year; not because I am any smarter than the next guy it is because I bust my ass to learn what employers wanted and became an expert at that. Hard work and education there is nothing better, no short cuts and no getting around it you can’t just bullshit your way to higher pay you must earn what you get.

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cbregal March 02 2014 at 10:26 PM

take your lazy ass to school ,fast food jobs are for teenagers going to school

Flag Reply +11 rate up
shevon March 02 2014 at 10:25 PM

I was 16 when I came back to this country. I left when I was 8 with my parents to live in the country of their national origin. I earned 4:25 an hour and paid rent, yes I was 16 and I had to pay rent. I knew then this was not for me. I worked two jobs for a year, then went to college. Back in my day, fast food was for kids, high school kids and a few college kid; not so much the Management level positions though. If KFC does not pay enough, learn a trade or go to school, KFC pays you what they feel the job is worth. Increasing minimum wage is not the answer, all other costs increase at about the same proportion. What good does that do? We do need more programs to assist with housing and schooling welfare needs to be reformed and certain Social Security programs need reform as well. Too many people feel entailed and forget they owe it to themselves to be the best that they can be.

Flag Reply +4 rate up
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