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Fast-food workers in NYC flex their muscle for better pay

Occupy the drive-thru: Fast-food workers in New York City staged a walkout on Thursday to demand better pay and the right to unionize in another recent example of labor stretching muscles made moribund by disuse.

Organizers of the Fast Food Forward movement said they expected hundreds of workers would walk out or not show up for work at dozens of McDonald’s, Burger King and other fast-food chains. 

Late Thursday, Fast Food Forward, one of the organizations behind the effort, released a statement saying about 200 people had participated in the strike.

At one early morning demonstration, roughly 75 percent of shift workers were outside protesting, leaving managers to staff the registers and preparation equipment, said Jonathan Westin, organizing director with New York Communities for Change, one of the groups coordinating the walkouts.

“Workers are sick and tired of making poverty wages,” despite working for multibillion-dollar corporations, he said. “I don’t think this is a short-term fight.”

Joshua Williams, 28, works at a Wendy's restaurant in Brooklyn and told Reuters he planned to participate in the walkout. He said he still earned minimum wage, despite working 30 to 40 hours a week for more than a year.

In seeking a $15 hourly wage and the right to unionize, the movement joined a growing conversation about the financial challenges faced by the working poor.

“During the recession there was the assumption that people should just get a job, any job... I think you see the movement towards unionization as a demand-side response, in a sense,” said Ellen Galinsky, president of the Families and WorkInstitute, which just released a study on how to make low-income jobs better titled “Low-Income Workforce Challenge: Not Just ‘Jobs,’ ‘Good Jobs.’ " 

“Employees are saying, ‘No, we want better jobs.’ ”

The Fast Food Forward action, which is supported by the Service Employees International Union along with civil rights and community groups, comes less than a week after a union-backed effort to draw attention to wages and working conditions at Wal-Mart led to protests at stores across the country on Black Friday. 

Organization United for Respect at Walmart called on the nation’s largest retailer to pay a minimum $13 hourly wage. Sales associates there currently make an average of $8.81 an hour, according to third-party research cited by workers’ rights groups.

Earlier this week, the National Domestic Workers Alliance released a report that found nearly a quarter of nannies, housekeepers and caregivers earn less than the state minimum wage, and 70 percent make less than $13 an hour.

“We must create a more equitable economic environment for all low-wage workers,” the report said. “It is difficult to advocate for the rights of domestic workers in an economic and political environment in which the rights of low-wage workers more broadly are so badly frayed.”

Advocates for higher wages say the focus on minimum and low-wage workers is important because there are more people earning less today. The National Employment Law Project found that about 20 percent of jobs lost during the recession were low-paying positions, but nearly 60 percent of the jobs added since then.

“In my mind, if we’re going to reduce inequality in the United States, it’s going to have to address the low wages and lack of benefits in the restaurants and retail sectors,” said Annette Bernhardt, policy co-director at NELP. “There’s a profound larger question being posed, which is how the American labor market is going to look in the 21st century.”

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, around 60 percent of workers who earned minimum wage or less last year worked in “service occupations,” primarily food preparation and serving.

At more than double the current national minimum wage of $7.25, the $15 sought by Fast Food Forward might seem like a pie-in-the-sky goal, but others are pushing to increase New York state's minimum wage to $8.50 next year. According to the National Women’s Law Center, if the minimum wage rose at the pace of inflation, it currently would be $10.60.

The National Restaurant Association opposes this and other legislation to raise minimum wages. The position statement on its website says, “Wage mandates are an ineffective way to reduce poverty and cause restaurant operators to make very difficult decisions to eliminate jobs, cut staff hours or increase prices.”

Richard Adams, a McDonald's franchise adviser, told Reuters $15 an hour would be an "insane increase" that would add as much as $2 to the price of menu items.

"The majority of McDonald's restaurants are owned and operated by independent business men and women who offer pay and benefits competitive within the quick service restaurant industry," the company said in a statement.

David Neumark, a professor of economics at University of California, Irvine, said campaigns to increase wages for minimum and low-wage workers miss the mark.

“A lot of the fast-food workers aren’t in poor families — they’re just kids,” he said. “Targeting low-income families through what they’re trying to accomplish is a really scattershot way to do it. Why should an owner... have to pay more to the kids of middle-class families?”

Galinsky said higher wages are important, but companies also need to explore other ways to improve the experience of low-wage workers, since the jobs they are filling make up an increasing percentage of labor market demand.

“Traditionally, people who work in jobs like fast food or retail… have been seen as expendable, particularly in a time of economic insecurity,” she said. The institute’s research found that access to training and advancement opportunities, flexible schedules and supportive managers help to improve productivity and reduce turnover at companies that employ low-wage workers.

“There are things that employers can do, most of which don’t cost money, that could benefit employees and that could benefit their own organization,” she said. “It’s a mindset change.”

Information from Reuters was included in this report.