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Thousands of fast-food workers kicked off a day of coordinated strikes in more than 60 cities nationwide on Thursday, walking off their jobs and forming picket lines to demand salaries of $15 an hour and the ability to form unions.
More than 4 million people work in the $200 billion fast-food industry in the U.S., earning an average annual wage of $18,130 in 2010, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
But in New York City, for example, fast-food workers earning the minimum wage of $7.25 an hour struggle to pay their bills in a city where the average apartment rents for $3,017.19 a month, according to real estate research firm Reis.
Fast-food restaurant employees started picketing at 6:30 a.m. Thursday in front of a McDonald’s on Fifth Avenue in midtown Manhattan, brandishing signs and chanting for better pay and benefits.
Tamara Green, 26, participated in the McDonald's strike because her minimum-wage pay at a Burger King in Brooklyn doesn't begin to cover her $1,000 monthly rent.
"I try to live the American dream, but I just can't do that on $7.25. It's just impossible," she said. "We're so suffocated underneath assumptions that we're nobody."
She has worked part-time at Burger King, about 20 hours a week, for the past four months, earning around $98 each week after taxes. “Every step takes me deeper into a hole. I just want to be able to come out of this hole," Green said.
"We’re so suffocated underneath assumptions that we’re nobody.” -Tamara Green, 26
Indeed, Jonathan Westin, the director of the fast-food employee union Fast Food Forward and executive director of the advocacy group New York Communities for Change, has been talking to fast-food workers for the past year and a half about the conditions they face in the industry. Last November, he helped organize a protest of about 200 workers in New York City, the catalyst for Thursday’s nationwide event.
“We hear a resounding answer that people are just unable to live off the wages they’re paid in this industry, especially in New York, which is the most expensive city in the country,” he told Al Jazeera at the strike.
Westin said the hope is that today’s movement continues to grow, and that corporations like McDonald’s and Yum Brands, which owns Taco Bell, KFC and Pizza Hut, will pay attention to the plight of their workers. “They’re making billions and billions in profit, more profit than they’ve ever made before, while workers still haven’t seen a raise,” he said.
Front-line fast-food workers in the U.S. earn a median hourly wage of $8.94, and those front-line positions make up 89.1 percent of all fast-food industry jobs, while just 2.2 percent are managerial, according to a report from the National Employment Law Project (PDF).
About 13 percent of fast-food workers make less than the federal minimum wage of $7.25, and more than 25 percent are raising at least one child, according to the Center for Economic and Policy Research.
The National Restaurant Association, for its part, says heightened labor costs will prevent fast-food restaurants from making more hires. "We welcome a debate on fair wages, but it should be based on facts," Scott DeFife, vice president of policy and government affairs at the National Restaurant Association, told Al Jazeera in an email.
"The restaurant industry is the nation’s second largest private sector employer and our industry is an industry of opportunity. Nine out of ten salaried restaurant workers, including owners and managers, started as hourly workers. The fact is, only five percent of restaurant employees earn the minimum wage and those that do are predominantly working part-time and half are teenagers."
$8 an hour
Shenita Simon, 25, a mother of three children, makes more than minimum wage as a shift supervisor at a KFC in Brooklyn, but barely -- she earns $8 an hour working about 36 hours a week.
She took part in the strike at McDonald's Thursday morning because, as she said, with union support "things like me getting burned with 190-degree water on my hands won't happen anymore, because we’ll be supplied with adequate equipment, things like simple oven gloves, they refuse to buy."
In April 2012 she was carrying a pan of hot water, which she is asked to do on a regular basis. She says her employer doesn't provide oven mitts or protective gloves, and she scalded her hands after she accidentally tipped the pan while carrying it to the sink. She had to take three weeks off work.
Simon said it took three weeks to get worker’s compensation, and when it finally came, it was only $58. "So I had no choice but to go back to work," she said.
Because she also doesn’t receive medical benefits from KFC, she said she was turned away from the burn unit at New York-Presbyterian Hospital because she couldn't afford to pay the bill. She said that at Kings County Hospital in Brooklyn, which was able to treat her with help from Medicaid, the doctor told her the first layer of her skin was "stripped completely. So I’m permanently without a layer of skin."
She added, “If I was the manager, if I was the franchisee, I wouldn’t put my workers at risk like that on a day-to-day basis."
The McDonald's restaurant where the workers were demonstrating did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Workers were also on strike in cities across the U.S. including Atlanta, Dallas, Detroit, Indianapolis, New Orleans, Las Vegas and Oakland.
In Milwaukee, McDonald's employee Marielle Crowley, 20, said he was energized by the day's protests, where he estimates he was joined by about 200 other fast-food workers picketing at restaurants across the city.
He earns $7.25 an hour at McDonald's, up from $5.90 when he started, but after six years he still doesn’t receive any benefits. "I don't have a problem with going to work and actually doing the work they have for us. It's easy work," Crowley said. "But at the same token, I shouldn't have to work two jobs in order to survive."
He also works at UPS, and because he lives at home with his parents, he doesn't have to shoulder rent on his own, but neither he nor his family can afford to pay for him to attend college. "I'm still struggling," he said of the effort he puts forth to work two jobs. "I have nothing to show for it."
Fast-food workers in Milwaukee earn an average of $8.40 an hour, according to Jennifer Epps-Addison, the economic-justice director of Citizen Action of Wisconsin, one of the groups that are helping to organize the Milwaukee strikes. But she's talked to many employees who have worked in the fast-food sector for years, only to see pay increases of just a few cents an hour. "That's just not the America we were raised to believe in," she said.
But she is hopeful that the national scale of today’s strikes will continue to help make incremental improvements on a local level. And in the wake of the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington on Wednesday and Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech, Epps-Addison said that legacy is especially poignant during today's strikes.
"They know that the march was about jobs and the economy, and that could not be more true for them today," she said. "They know civil rights were not won in a year or two years, but that it was a long battle, and they’re prepared to dig in for the long battle."