Fast-food workers kick off week of strikes demanding wage hikes

Low-wage workers are also rallying for the right to unionize without retaliation

Employees and supporters demonstrate outside of a Wendy's fast-food restaurant on July 29, 2013 in New York City. (Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

By Dexter Mullins and Lisa De Bode

NEW YORK -- Fast-food workers fed up with paltry wages and demanding the freedom to unionize fanned out across the city Monday to strike in front of a number of chain restaurants including McDonald's and Wendy's.

Activists behind the strikes estimate that thousands of workers in seven U.S. cities will walk off their jobs as they fight for a minimum wage increase from $7.25 to $15 an hour. While the federal minimum wage is $7.25 an hour, some states have slightly higher state minimums, including Missouri ($7.35) where some protesters gathered Monday.

Jonathan Westin, the director of Fast-Food Forward, joined the hundreds of workers who were protesting here and echoed their frustrations with multinational companies that employees believe are unwilling to pay them a fair wage.

“[Fast-food companies] are making more profits than ever before in the history of this industry, while they continue to pay workers the minimum wage," Westin, who is also the executive director of New York Communities for Change, told Al Jazeera.

The strikes are being organized by a coalition of local labor groups, community organizations and clergy members from New York Communities for Change, Jobs with Justice, Action Now, 99% pastors/interfaith Coalition and Citizen Action of Wisconsin. In each city the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) is contributing financial and technical support, and is sending staffers to train strike organizers.

The demonstrations, which began in New York, also kicked off in Kansas City and St. Louis on Monday and are expected to continue through Thursday, expanding to Chicago, Detroit, Milwaukee and Flint, Mich. The strikes will primarily target chains like McDonalds, Burger King, Wendy’s and KFC. The goal of the strike is to send a message that low-wage workers are no longer willing to keep quiet.

"Remaining silent is not an option because it’s nearly impossible to survive on $7.25 an hour," Kareem Starks, a McDonald's worker in Brooklyn, said in a statement.

In a statement to Al Jazeera, McDonalds’ said, “All of our employees deserve to be treated with dignity and respect and we will continue to discuss ways we can continuously improve and provide a positive work environment for all.”

Burger King, for its part, said that it offers compensation and benefits that are consistent with the rest of the industry, adding that through the company's foundation, employees and their families are eligible for college scholarships.

New York City rally

The strikes here culminated in an afternoon rally at Union Square, where an estimated 400 protesters gathered.

The fast-food workers, some of whom were still wearing their uniforms, held up red signs in Spanish and English reading: "Strike for a wage," and "For higher pay, for a stronger New York." The crowd chanted, "Hey, hey, ho, ho, poverty wages have got to go."

At one point, hundreds gathered at the entrance of a McDonald’s restaurant at 39 Union Square, where security personnel prevented journalists from entering the restaurant. At the same time protesters chanted, “Look up, look down, New York is union town,” accompanied by the tunes of a saxophone. Some demonstrators tried dissuading customers from buying food at the restaurant, but didn’t always succeed.

David Stallings, 31, and his wife, Tamequa Saunders, who showed a reporter how to spell her name by pointing to the name tag on her Burger King uniform, said they both work at the fast-food chain and live together in a shelter, the St. Anthony Hotel, in The Bronx.

"We lost our jobs in Manhattan and we ran out of money to pay for our rent, so we had to go to a shelter," she added. She says she doesn't make enough to pay for basic amenities.

"You can’t get anything in a bank, and it’s hard. It’s just work and sleep and that’s it," Saunders said.  

Wendell Matthews, a 38-year-old employee at Kentucky Fried Chicken who attended the rally at Union Square, says he only makes $500 a month, of which he pays $300 to help support his mother with whom he lives in an apartment in Queens.

"We work for multi-million dollar companies and we want fairness. We want dollars instead of cents," he said.

Congress' minimum wage fight

Opponents of an increase in the federal minimum wage have long argued that raising the wage would lead to a loss of jobs because employers would be forced to reduce job offerings to compensate for paying higher wages.

But a 2010 study conducted by the University of California, Berkeley, found that increasing the minimum wage does not actually cause job loss. The study authors noted that the two most highly cited studies were flawed because they could not be generalized and they covered very short periods of time.

David Cooper, an analyst at the Economic Policy Institute, told Al Jazeera that raising the minimum wage would directly benefit the economy and turn the paradigm on its head. When low-wage workers aren’t paid enough, he said, taxpayers end up footing the bill.

“When wages are held so low, people still need to have a certain income to survive and people have to rely on public services,” Cooper said. “So what you have happen is taxpayers end up subsidizing these highly profitable corporations."

Cooper suggests that the minimum wage should be tied to inflation, which would eliminate the need to have stand-offs in Congress every few years. Liberal Congress members are trying to do just that with the Fair Minimum Wage Act of 2013. If the bill were to be enacted, it would put the federal minimum wage in line with that of 10 states that already tie their minimum wage to inflation. The federal minimum wage, however, has not kept up with inflation.

Thomas “Zee” McGinnis, 42, who has worked as a delivery man at a Domino‘s Pizza in St. Louis since 1989, is a prime example of that problem. After two decades of employment with the company, he makes $7.35 an hour. The state of Missouri ties its minimum wage to the cost of living standard.

McGinnis participated in a strike on Monday at a McDonalds in St. Louis, along with what he estimates were 150 to 200 people. He spoke to Al Jazeera about what brought him to the protest.

“Dominos pretty much raises the minimum wage when the government does,” McGinnis said. “This is economic slavery, to me.”

Domino's spokesman Tim McIntyre told Al Jazeera in an email that at its company-owned stores, drivers are paid at least minimum wage, they receive tips and they are reimbursed for the use of their own vehicles.

"Not counting the reimbursement, the average driver makes over $10.00/hour," McIntyre wrote.

"Most drivers use Domino's as their second job," he added. "They work nights and weekends, when people eat pizza. This is typically the supplement to people's day jobs."

McGinnis described the scene at the St. Louis restaurant where he attended a rally: "It seemed like the McDonalds employees inside were happy," he said about workers on shift who appreciated the efforts of those in the rally. "One even walked out on their shift,” he said.

It was McGinnis’ first time participating in a strike. He said that franchise owners have contacted him to discuss his complaints about wages and unionization, but they have yet to set a specific date for the meeting.

Attempts to reach KFC were unsuccessful at the time of publication.

Contributor: Massoud Hayoun

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