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Fast-food wage protests highlight shift in economy

Demonstrators gathered outside fast-food restaurants in 100 cities Thursday, campaigning for a $15 an hour wage and the right to unionize. 

The series of daylong mini-strikes were coordinated by Fast Food Forward, an advocacy group that said it is making progress advancing the message that higher wages for fast-food workers will have an overall benefit for the American economy. 

The visible participation of organized labor in the fast-food demonstrations, which came a year after some New York City workers walked off the job, pointed to shifting age demographics in the country’s pool of low-wage laborers.

“This movement is really growing in a way unlike anything we’ve seen with worker organizing in the last several decades,” said Jack Temple, policy analyst at the National Employment Law Project.

With minimum-wage service positions constituting much of the job market recovery, flipping burgers isn’t a summer gig for teenagers anymore; increasingly, it’s the only job available to people who lack a college education.

“This is an overwhelmingly adult workforce. More than a third of them are actually raising children,” Temple said. “The reason there’s a lot of urgency around raising wages right now is … when workers don’t have enough money to spend, the economy weakens.”

About 50 demonstrators gathered outside a Detroit-area McDonald’s but failed to shut it down. While a few employees did walk out, other workers and the manager kept the drive-thru and other service running, according to The Associated Press.

“I need a better wage for myself, because, right now, I’m relying on aid, and $7.40 is not able to help me maintain taking care of my son. I’m a single parent,” Julius Waters, a 29-year-old McDonald’s worker, told the AP.

“Ultimately, what these workers want is $15 an hour and the right to form a union,” said Kendall Fells, the organizing director for Fast Food Forward and a coordinator with the Service Employees International Union, which is involved in the campaign.

“What we’re seeing is a transition from a manufacturing to a service-based economy,” Temple said. “It makes sense for unions to be looking at these fast growing industries.” By courting local activists, religious leaders and community groups, Fast Food Forward has sought to harness broader support for its message than a typical organized labor campaign would be likely to generate.

McDonald’s worker Roberto Tejada was among those demonstrating for higher wages outside a restaurant in Los Angeles.

“This is actually a tough job,” Tejada told NBC Los Angeles. “If I struggle with $8 an hour just for myself, imagine how people with children struggle.”

McDonald’s disputed the characterization of Thursday’s activities as strikes. “The events taking place are not strikes. Outside groups are traveling to McDonald’s and other outlets to stage rallies,” company spokeswoman Lisa McCombs said in an email. “We’re aware of only a handful of McDonald’s employees, of the approximately 700,000 who work for McDonald’s in the U.S., involved in the rallies.”

Burger King did not respond to requests for comment. 

Yum Brands, corporate parent of Pizza Hut, Taco Bell and KFC, said in an email statement that the majority of its U.S. restaurants are owned by franchisees who "pay competitive wages and provide training and development so their employees can build their careers. While entry level positions may begin at the minimum wage, this is a training wage. Once an employee successfully builds their skills, they are able to increase their wages."

Whether the day of demonstrations will lead to any tangible gains for workers behind fast food counters remains to be seen. Supporters say the one-day strikes help grow awareness and support for their cause. “My view on this is that it is too soon to know if the strikes will impact wages in fast food per se,” said Paul Osterman, professor of human resources and management at MIT and author of "Good Jobs America: Making Work Better for Everyone," in an email.

“The bigger point is that they are helping to put wage fairness on the national agenda,” Osterman said. “Along with other developments such as state and local minimum wage campaigns, [this] will add to the momentum to address earnings inequality.”

“Ultimately what you see is a community fight,” Fells said. “The ripple effect from this campaign has been the involvement of politicians …. People are talking about raising minimum wages.”

Incoming New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio said he was “proud to stand strong” with the demonstrators Thursday and took a swing at the fast-food industry, saying that while it makes “billions every year, it refuses to pay its workers enough to provide for themselves or their families.”

“We see momentum gathering and a consensus emerging around the idea that we need to increase the federal minimum wage, to give these workers and millions like them a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work,” Secretary of Labor Thomas Perez wrote in a post on the department’s blog Wednesday. “Cities, states and localities have begun taking matters into their own hands and raising the minimum wage in their jurisdictions.”

This year, five states and a number of smaller jurisdictions have increased their minimum wages, and the Washington city of SeaTac approved $15-an-hour wage legislation last month.

President Obama has expressed support for a Congressional proposal to raise the minimum wage to $10.10. Some Americans “work their tails off and are still living at or barely above poverty,” he said in a speech Wednesday. “It’s well past the time to raise [the] minimum wage.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.