What’s their beef? Striking fast food workers say low wages

epa03806747 People gather outside of a Wendy's restaurant as part of a one day strike calling for higher wages for fast food workers in New York, New ...
Protesters gather outside of a Wendy's restaurant as part of a one day strike calling for higher wages for fast food workers in New York City on Monday. The strike, which is taking a place cities across the U.S. aims to increase workers' wages to $15 an hour. JUSTIN LANE

You may find yourself waiting longer for McNuggets or a Whopper this week as thousands of workers in seven cities around the country strike for $15 an hour and the right to unionize.

Building on the momentum of an initial strike last November in New York City, organizers say dozens of restaurants in New York City, Chicago, St. Louis, Milwaukee, Kansas City, Detroit and Flint, Mich., will be affected by waves of worker walkouts over the course of the week.

“These workers need a raise and they need representation in the workplace,” said Martin Rafanan, community director for STL735. The acronym stands for “St. Louis Can’t Survive on $7.35,” referring to Missouri’s minimum wage. Rafanan said the group, which plans to strike today and tomorrow, hopes to build on a May strike when about 100 workers walked off the job.

Fast food strikes spread across the nation 5:04

“In this particular set of actions this week, we’re expecting to strike 50 stores and between 100 and 200 workers,” he said, adding that the response to the May strike was greater than anticipated. The group only expected 40 or 50 workers to walk out. “It ended up being a much bigger thing.”

Today’s action could see 500-plus workers at dozens of New York City fast food restaurants abandoning their posts for picket lines, said Jonathan Westin, director of Fast Food Forward and executive director of New York Communities For Change.

At a McDonald's across the street from Yankee Stadium, several dozen people chanted, "We can't survive on $7.25."

In April, 400 fast food employees walked off the job in New York. At twice the size of the group’s inaugural walkout last November, local organizers called that event the biggest fast food strike in the country — until now.

These actions are designed to call attention to “the contradictions between the folks at the top… and the workers themselves living in poverty,” Westin said.

Spokespeople from McDonald’s and Yum Brands (parent company of Taco Bell, KFC and Pizza Hut) referred questions to their trade group, the National Restaurant Association. The association did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

“As a corporation, we respect the rights of all workers; however, Burger King Corp. does not make hiring, firing or other employment-related decisions for our franchisees … Burger King restaurants offer compensation and benefits that are consistent with the QSR industry,” a company spokesperson said in a statement via email. QSR is industry jargon for quick-service restaurant, or fast food.

Wendy’s is “still assessing the situation,” company spokesman Bob Bertini said via email. “We have no additional comment.”

This week’s actions come on the heels of a much-lambasted budget guide for McDonald’s workers that recommended they get a second job and budgeted just $20 a month for health insurance, and a report by the National Employment Law Project showing that the vast majority of fast food positions are dead-end jobs. Earlier NELP research found that nearly 60 percent of post-recession job creation was for work that pays an hourly wage of $13.83 or less.

Deutsch: Increasing fast-food worker salary won't put chains out of business 6:33

An open letter signed by more than 100 economists and published this month by the University of Massachusetts, Amherst’s Political Economy Research Institute titled, “Economists in Support of a $10.50 U.S. Minimum Wage,” makes the case that raising wages would add just five cents to the price of a Big Mac.

Although fast food jobs are often thought of as work that provides teenagers with spending money, the average age of today’s fast food worker is 32, the paper said, which has much grimmer implications. “If a worker today is employed full time for a full 52-week year at a minimum wage job today, she or he is making $15,080. This is 19 percent below the official poverty line for a family of three,” the paper said.

The Associated Press contributed reporting.

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