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Fast Food Workers Hold Biggest Ever Strike For Wages in U.S.

by Pratap ChatterjeeCorpWatch Blog
September 5th, 2014

Screen shot from a McDonald's video. When the company took it down after it was used by protestors.

Hundreds of low wage fast food workers were arrested at strikes and protests in some 100 cities around the U.S. on September 4. They were demanding that companies like Burger King, KFC, McDonald's and Wendy's pay workers a living wage of $15 an hour.

The “Low Pay Is Not OK” campaign began in July 2012, when workers in New York city went on strike, an unusual event in an industry that has few unions and little worker organizing. The average fast food worker makes $8.74 an hour, or about $17,500 a year if they are able to get full time work (which is quite rare). This is despite the fact that the U.S. Census Bureau estimates that a family of four needs to make more than $23,000 to stay out of poverty.

This latest protest was timed for the first business day following the Labor Day holiday.* It was backed by the Service Employees International Union, (SEIU) which represents about 2 million workers across the U.S.**

“This fight is for my children and younger sister, and the countless families of fast-food workers. It’s for my parents and grandparents, who marched with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.,” wrote Andrew McConnell, in an opinion article published on Salon. McConnell quit his job as an elementary school teacher to go to work at a McDonald's in Kansas City for $7.45 an hour in order to support his sister who has mental health issues. He supplements this work with online sales, baby sitting and cutting hair.

McConnell first chose to walk off his fast food job in May to protest working conditions and has continued to speak out since then.“It’s for my coworkers, those who have almost fainted after working in kitchen temperatures nearing 95 degrees – or 105 near the stove – and those who regularly have their hours docked and wages stolen,” McConnell wrote in his Salon commentary. “It’s for fast-food managers and franchisee owners like mine, who face relentless pressure and frequent visits from corporate to keep labor costs down and profits up.”

Organizers estimated that some 436 people were arrested around the country at pickets, protests, sit-ins and marches. Police confirmed that at least 34 were arrested in New York city, 30 in Detroit, 27 in Milwaukee and 19 in Chicago at incidents outside McDonald's outlets. Another 46 arrests were reported in Kansas city, 10 in Little Rock and 10 in Las Vegas.

McDonald's claims that it does not set salary levels for workers since the fast food outlets are small business owned franchises who purchase supplies and the brand name from the parent company. Activists challenged this by filing 181 cases against the company in late 2012 for harassing workers who were organizing for higher wages. In late July, the U.S. National Labor Relations Board ruled that the company was a “joint employer” suggesting that it exercised power over working conditions at the franchisee restaurants.

“Their pitch to consumers is that the dining experience in one McDonald's is virtually identical to another's,” wrote Michael Hitlick in the Los Angeles Times after the ruling came down. “But when the chips are down -- when a workplace regulation or a union organizing drive surfaces, for instance -- they claim that they just provide a big umbrella under which thousands of small businesses find some shade.”

Trade organizations are fighting back against the protests. “The activities have proven to be orchestrated union PR events where the vast majority of participants are activists and paid demonstrators,” said the National Restaurant Association, in a press statement. “This is nothing more than labor groups’ self-interested attempts to boost their dwindling membership by targeting restaurant employees.”

But McConnell says the companies are wrong. “They think they can ignore us; that we’ll get discouraged; that our movement will fizzle out; that somehow the challenges we face will simply go away,” he wrote. “They deflect responsibility for an outdated business model, and refuse to accept that we aren’t high schoolers looking for extra money but mothers and fathers trying to put our children through high school.”

* Labor Day in the U.S. falls on a different day from most other countries which typically celebrate labor rights on May 1. Ironically May Day commemorates a U.S. event - the Haymarket massacre in Chicago in 1886, when workers and polic officers were killed at a protest for an eight hour work day.

** CorpWatch has previously conducted done contract work for Service Employees International Union. This article was neither funded nor written in consultation with SEIU.