Fast-Food Workers Expected to Protest Low Wages Nationwide

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This post first appeared in The Nation.

Demonstrators in support of fast-food workers protest outside a McDonald's as they demand higher wages and the right to form a union without retaliation Monday, July 29, 2013, in New York's Union Square. (AP Photo/John Minchillo)


Fast-food workers in cities all across the country are expected to strike Thursday as part of growing protests against the nation’s biggest restaurant and retailer chains. Low-wage workers at businesses like McDonald’s and Macy’s are fighting for a living wage of $15 an hour in pay, which is more than double the current national minimum wage of $7.25.

Organizing against low-paying jobs at fast-food restaurants began last November in New York when hundreds of workers went on strike in a one-day protest. By the summer, the movement expanded to include thousands of workers across the country in cities like Detroit, Chicago and Kansas City.

This time around, workers in places like Los Angeles, Milwaukee, Memphis and Raleigh plan on getting involved with backing from the Service Employees International Union (SEIU).

There have already been tangible results from the strikes. Jonathan Westin, who helped organize New York’s first fast-food strike as the executive director of New York Communities for Change, says some local workers have seen wage increases of twenty-five to fifty cents per hour, and Steve Ashby, a professor at the University of Illinois School of Labor and Employment Relations, says some Chicago strikers have also gotten higher wages post-strike.

The achievements, while modest, have also had another effect: lending courage to other workers who want to strike for living wages.

Angela Gholston, 24, has been working at a McDonald’s in Detroit for two years, and says she’s participating in the strike to help form a union, and make better wages so she can support her family and pay her bills.

“I receive Medicaid because I can’t even afford to pay for my employer’s healthcare plan,” she says.

Gholston has participated in past strikes at work, and says she feels emboldened by the organizing she’s seen in other states.

“They’re trying to help us and we’re trying to help them, and that’s good. We have to stand together in order to keep this movement going. We need [$15-per-hour minimum wage], not $7.40. What can we do with $7.40?”

Gholston says she wasn’t hesitant to participate in the strike, even though she lacks the protection of a union.

“We need to make a union. That’s the whole point of going on strike. If you don’t take action and stand up for what’s right, who is going to do it for you? I wasn’t scared at all.”

Mike Wilder, co-founder of the African-American Civic Engagement Roundtable in Milwaukee and Community Coalition Coordinator with Wisconsin Jobs Now, and campaign leader of Raise Up MKE — a group focused on fighting for living wages — says the strike is about holding profitable companies accountable for not paying workers enough to afford basic amenities like food and rent.

In Milwaukee, Wilder says organizers and workers have planned a day full of actions at specific stores throughout the city.

“Here in Milwaukee, the day will end with a march and a rally in support of low-wage workers in one of the city’s poorest neighborhoods,” says Wilder.

Wilder says Thursday is one step in a much larger movement.

“All across the country, workers are standing up and demanding higher wages so they can support themselves and their families without having to seek government assistance,” he says. “In Milwaukee, we started with a few dozen workers on strike in May, and now we have hundreds striking. Workers are planning future escalating actions until their demands are met.”

Wilder adds the goal of these types of actions is to send a message to “these billion-dollar corporations that workers are no longer going to struggle to survive on minimum wage, while record-breaking profits are generated by the companies that employ them. Workers are demanding [$15-per-hour minimum wage] and the right to form a union without retaliation.”

Dwight Murray, 27, has been working at a McDonald’s in Indianapolis since March, and says he’s participating in the strike because he gives a lot to McDonald’s.

“I work hard and I deserve to make enough to meet my family’s basic needs,” says Murray. “I struggle to get my three-year-old daughter what she needs, and we have to make sacrifices on a regular basis. I’m going on strike because I deserve to make a liveable wage and to be able to take care of my daughter and even have money saved up for emergencies.”

Murray says fast-food workers aren’t treated with the respect they deserve on the job.

“We’re working hard to live up to the ‘hot, fresh and ready in a minute-and-a-half’ standard, but sometimes there’s not enough staff, so we work eight hours without a break.”

Murray claims he’s been told that no overtime is allowed, but then if his replacement doesn’t show up, he can’t leave, and then his superiors “gripe” about paying for a single hour at the overtime rate. He adds that none of the employees can count on raises, and the people who work hard and have been there the longest in crucial roles sometimes don’t get raises at all.

This is the first time Murray has ever gone on strike, but he says he feels bolstered by actions in other states.

“It gave me even more incentive to join and put a fire in my belly to stand up for this. Before, I didn’t feel that there was a proper avenue for me to be heard. Now, I see that there is, and that I’m not alone. I’m standing up for myself and my coworkers, but also the millions of other workers across the country that also deserve a liveable wage.”

Proving that indeed courage is contagious, Murray says he feels safe striking because he knows other workers have his back, and there are workers across the country standing up together.

“I know my rights and I’m talking to other workers about their rights. There are workers in cities across the country going on strike together. We’re standing together in order for us to obtain a liveable wage.”

Parts of these interviews were edited for clarity.


Allison Kilkenny is the co-host of the progressive political podcast Citizen Radio and independent journalist who blogs at allisonkilkenny.com. Her work has appeared in The American Prospect, the LA Times, In These Times, Truthout and the award-winning grassroots NYC newspaper the Indypendent.
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  • Anonymous

    Digital computerized operations and automation are destroying jobs and devaluing the worth of labor. This tectonic shift in the technologies of production and the greater employment of robotics and super-automation to save labor costs is not well understood and reported by the national media. Advances in software and production technology, abundant and relatively inexpensive energy, fast access to huge amounts of data, and growing global demand will continue to drive competitiveness of American manufacturing, and drive down labor costs, except for people with jobs in research and high-tech skilled work. Such innovation will increasingly impact the fast-food and services industries and result in fewer and fewer jobs as a result.

    While I am not opposed to the concept of a “minimum wage,” economic productivity is a bigger part of the story. Those arguing its support basically argue that labor is producing more value today, but working people aren’t seeing any of the gains. Who has walked away with the proceeds from all that productivity?

    A January report from Oxfam noted, “The richest one percent has increased its income by 60 percent in the last 20 years.” It further argued that the 2012 net income of the world’s top 100 billionaires—a haul of $240 billion—would be four times the amount needed to eliminate extreme poverty internationally.

    These arguments fail to point out the income source for the richest one percent is not their labor but their dividend income derived from their ownership of productive capital assets––the non-human factor of production.

    To maximize profit and thus dividend income, the purposeful function of business, companies strive to keep labor input and other costs at a minimum. Private sector job creation in numbers that match the pool of people willing and able to work is constantly being eroded by non-human physical productive capital’s ever increasing role.

    This is the reality of business in the global setting where lowest cost production is necessary to be competitive.

    Yet, the government continues to discharge its responsibility for the health and prosperity of the economy through coerced trickle-down; in other words, through redistribution achieved by the rigging of labor prices, including the minimum wage, by taxation to support redistribution and job “creation,” or subsidization by inflation and by all kinds of welfare, open and concealed. Employment should practically start at the time one enters the economic world as a labor worker, to become increasingly a capital owner, whose capital contributes to the work load, and at some point to retire as a labor worker and continue to participate in production and to earn income as a capital owner until the day you die.

    It doesn’t make any difference what’s going on in the scientific world or the business world or the industrial world, we still believe full employment and a minimum wage will solve our income distribution problems. This is what major political figures have always maintained.

    Binary economist Louis Kelso, whose books should be read by ALL conventional economists, the media and political figures, was quoted as saying, “Conventional wisdom says there is only one way to earn a living, and that’s to work. Conventional wisdom effectively treats capital (land, structures, machines, and the like) as though it were a kind of holy water that, sprinkled on or about labor, makes it more productive. Thus, if you have a thousand people working in a factory and you increase the design and power of the machinery so that one hundred men can now do what a thousand did before, conventional wisdom says, ‘Voila! The productivity of the labor has gone up 900 percent!’ I say ‘hogwash.’ All you’ve done is wipe out 90 percent of the jobs, and even the remaining ten percent are probably sitting around pushing buttons. What the economy needs is a way of legitimately getting capital ownership into the hands of the people who now don’t have it.”

    The best way to protect American citizens from this spiraling disaster that will continue to undercut American workers, destroy jobs and devalue the worth of labor in the United States is to implement policies to create an OWNERSHIP SOCIETY, whereby EVERY American is extended the right to acquire productive capital with the self-financing earnings of productive capital––the physical wealth-creating assets of corporation, e.g., machines, super-automation, robotics, digital computerization operations, etc. Currently non-property-owning Americans are left to acquire, as best as they can, with their earnings as labor workers. This is fundamentally hard to do and limiting. Thus, the most important economic right Americans need and should demand is the effective right to acquire capital with the earnings of capital. Note, though, millions of Americans own diluted stock value through the “stock market exchanges,” purchased with their earnings as labor workers, their stock holdings are relatively miniscule, as are their dividend payments compared to the top 10 percent of capital owners.

    What historically empowered America’s original capitalists was conventional savings-based finance and the pledging or mortgaging of assets, with access to further ownership of new productive capital available only to those who were already well capitalized. As has been the case, credit to purchase capital is made available by financial institutions ONLY to people who already own capital and other forms of equity, such as the equity in their home that can be pledged as loan security––those who meet the universal requirement for collateral. Lenders will only extend credit to people who already have assets. Thus, the rich are made ever richer, while the poor (people without a viable capital estate) remain poor and dependent on their labor to produce income. Thus, the system is restrictive and capital ownership is clinically denied to those who need the dividend earning it produces.

    This will address the fact that productive capital is becoming more productive and increasingly responsible for the production of society’s products and services, not labor, whose relative input is constantly being diminished by the substitution of the non-human factor of production.

    As Kelso asserted: “The problem with conventional financing techniques is that they address only the productive power of enterprise and the enhancement of the earning power of the rich minority. Sustaining or increasing the earning power of the majority of consumers who are dependent entirely upon the earnings of their labor, or upon welfare, is left to government or governmentally assisted redistribution of income and to chance.”

    See my article “The Absent Conversation: Who Should Own America?” published by The Huffington Post at http://www.huffingtonpost.com/gary-reber/who-should-own-america_b_2040592.html and by OpEd News at http://www.opednews.com/articles/THE-Absent-Conversation–by-Gary-Reber-130429-498.html

    Also see “The Path To Eradicating Poverty In America” at http://www.huffingtonpost.com/gary-reber/the-path-to-eradicating-p_b_3017072.html and “The Path To Sustainable Economic Growth” at http://www.huffingtonpost.com/gary-reber/sustainable-economic-growth_b_3141721.html. And also “Second Income Plan” at http://www.huffingtonpost.com/gary-reber/second-income-plan_b_3625319.html

    Also see the article entitled “The Solution To America’s Economic Decline” at http://www.nationofchange.org/solution-america-s-economic-decline-1367588690 and “Education Is Critical To Our Future Societal Development” at http://www.nationofchange.org/education-critical-our-future-societal-development-1373556479. And also “Achieving The Green Economy” at http://www.nationofchange.org/achieving-green-economy-1373980790. Also see it complete with the footnotes at http://foreconomicjustice.org/?p=9082.

    Also see “Financing Economic Growth With ‘FUTURE SAVINGS’: Solutions To Protect America From Economic Decline” at NationOfChange.org http://www.nationofchange.org/financing-future-economic-growth-future-savings-solutions-protect-america-economic-decline-137450624

  • Genevieve Prentice

    This article is worth a whole day – week – month – year worth of happy.

  • Anonymous

    The ironic part of this is that if their strike was successful then the prices would go up on the same fast food that they depend upon for sustenance. . . It is not as if they go to middle to upper-end restaurants or shop at Whole Foods.

  • Linda MacMillan

    The fact that the CEO of a corporation such as all of the fast food industries make millions and the workers make nothing is akin to slave labor. If the prices go up so what people will still flock to them just like they do now for their burgers and fries.

  • JonThomas

    I wonder… if their wages do go up, maybe they could afford healthier food?

  • Anonymous

    They are not skipping work. Most of the demonstrators are paid by outside organizations. However, in the case of Seattle today many of them were leftover Occupy hipsters out there trying to make a difference (while their upper-middle class parents are supporting them, I’m sure). It’s a strange world we live in today.

  • Anonymous

    They have tried somewhat healthier food (McDonald’s has oatmeal & egg whites for breakfast. healthier salads & apple slices). It cost them money when they have to throw it out because people won’t buy it. Kids across the country are rejecting Michelle Obama’s healthy lunch changes. They say it taste awful & refuse to eat it. Many are bringing in their own junk food or merely doing without. Do you think most people are going to buy tofu, kale & soy milk when they can have chicken nuggets, mac-n-cheese & Sunny D for a third of the price?

  • Ed in Colorado

    Linda, a person’s wage has nothing to do with the profits a company earns. In any occupational field certain jobs have a varying
    wage value. In the case of fast food, they are at the bottom of the chain. Being at the bottom of the chain should be good incentive to prepare oneself to find a way to get a better job. This is how capitalism works.

  • JonThomas

    Hi Tim, I’m not entirely sure how to answer.

    In your first comment it sounded like you were talking about the “sustenance” on which the fast food workers were relying. Perhaps I misunderstood.

    My comment, however clumsily written, was reflecting on those workers not needing to buy ‘bottom of the barrel,’ cheap food if they get a pay raise.

    In your response, you seemed to have switched to the retail view, and to McDonald’s trying to sell better food.

    I don’t know the profit margin, or any of the market share info on those healthier fast food menus. To be honest, I quit giving my money to those vampire-like corporations years ago.

    I do go to support Burger King a few times a year because I’ve been a vegetarian for nigh-on 20 years now (actually 22 come to think of it,) and their veggie burger seems pretty successful.

    As far as school lunches go, if children aren’t eating the healthier food, it’s certainly not Mrs. Obama’s fault. It’s a shame that people are so short sighted when it comes to the public school breakfast and lunch menu.

    I also read those articles. Do you think it’s the ‘taste’ of apples and other fruit that is ‘awful,’ or maybe it’s that the parents haven’t introduced the flavor of healthy food to their children?

    It is a great shame that what you cut costs on when children are young, cost society 1000+ times the cost later in children’s lives due to obesity and other illnesses.

    Cut a buck here, throw away 1000 there. Seems foolish…no?

  • Joan Caiazzo

    Organized labor and unions have always provided a necessary balance to corporations. It is unions that helped to create the strong middle class this country use to have, and it is because of their demise that the middle class is disappearing. It is corporate America that killed job security, pensions, and all of the benefits that allowed Americans in years past to have a decent life and support a family, not unions. When the wages of workers at the bottom are raised it creates a pressure to raise all of us up. Unfortunately it seems that most Americans have bought the narrative of the rich, and as long as we continue to act to protect our small, insignificant piece of a dwindling pie instead of supporting our fellow Americans in improving their circumstances, the rich will continue to get rich, and the rest of us will be left with little more than their scraps.

  • Anonymous

    I wasn’t trying to blame Michelle. I was pointing out that the schools are dropping the program because it is putting them in the red to throw out the food the kids won’t touch (fresh fruit, veggies, salads, yogurt, etc.). Astonishingly, the report said kids would do without before eating the aforementioned.
    A lot of it might come down to how the kids eat at home. The majority of them are not going to grab an apple or banana when they have access to Little Debbies, Doritos & Fruit Loops.
    I will only eat fast food as a last option. Ironically though, I would eat at a Long John Silvers before a Red Lobster or McDonalds before an Applebees (don’t see much difference in quality or preparation) I detest franchise restaurants.

  • JonThomas

    I knew that I must have misunderstood.

    I agree, with your thinking about parents. In today’s world, with both parents needing to work (or of course, wanting to work,) it sometimes seems that parents often don’t put the effort into preparing, and serving healthy, tasty food. I think the higher cost of healthy food (as you earlier pointed out) also plays a role in what parents can put on the table.

    Also, from what I remember from school, peer pressure played a HUGE role in what we ate. Parents are hard pressed to equip their kids for resisting that factor. Broccoli doesn’t get a lot of cool commercials on the cartoon network lol.

  • Matthew Dubois

    from experience. the veggie burger is done at a loss to make themselves more accessible to the masses. its not that it costs too much but most are wasted bc %20 might be served as rest will be freezer-burned and wasted. from various companies i have seen ppl demand to see the healthy food but the same people buy the junk food insted

  • JonThomas

    I think it’s great that these workers are finally standing up and throwing off their shackles. Working for less than what it takes to live is foolish. I really hope that they succeed, and that their efforts spread to every worker, in every field.

    Perhaps then, the American worker can regain their self-respect and have the guts to tell any employer….”No! My life is worth more than that!.”

  • Anonymous

    An important point is the one about Medicaid. Because health insurance companies have experienced very little regulation (until recently, with some Obamacare provisions such as the amount of money that *must actually be used for patient services*), they can charge employers whatever they wish. Health care costs need not be based on anything other than desired profits. Employers can then pass on as many of these costs as they’d like to their employees, and they have an incentive to keep costs high because they know employees can’t afford it and will end up on Medicaid, saving the employer (but costing the taxpayer) money.

    Then we have to hear that we shouldn’t have any kind of single payer option AND should cut Medicaid (see Michigan as just one example), all while the government, hospitals and doctors lose money treating people in emergency rooms, often in far more serious conditions than they would have been if they’d had preventive care, who had no other option. It just boggles my mind that the very same people who claim to be all about efficiency can in any way defend this shockingly wasteful, inefficient system. It really, really isn’t like this in other places. Just go live in them for a while; I have.

  • Anonymous

    Forbes did an excellent piece on whether prices would actually rise and, if so by how much, here. It’s not as much as you might think, if anything: http://www.forbes.com/sites/clareoconnor/2013/07/30/how-much-would-a-big-mac-cost-if-mcdonalds-workers-were-paid-15-per-hour/