A national job action yesterday by thousands of fast-food workers in more than 60 cities was staged to call attention to their low wages and their inability to support their families.
The wages of workers in the fast-food industry have been under considerable scrutiny after 200 workers walked off their jobs in New York City last November to picket and demand salary increases. They also staged another walkout in April.
While the nearly $200 billion U.S. fast-food industry has traditionally been considered an employer of teenagers and students, the recession changed that in recent years, pushing more adults into the minimum-wage workforce. The industry employs more than 4 million people who earned an average annual wage of $18,130 in 2010, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
As reported by the BBC, the job action comes as President Obama and many Democrats in Congress are trying to raise the minimum wage from $7.25 to $9 an hour.
In addition to New York, other cities participating in the job action included Chicago, Detroit, Boston, Atlanta, Hartford, Los Angeles, Milwaukee and St Louis. While some targeted restaurants were still able to do normal business, others had to stop serving customers because of the picketing.
In New York City with its exorbitant cost of living, fast-food workers earning the minimum wage of $7.25 an hour struggle to pay bills. The rent for the average apartment in the city is $3,017.19 a month, according to real estate research firm Reis.
The picketing in New York began at 6:30 a.m. yesterday in front of a McDonald’s on Fifth Avenue in midtown Manhattan. About 300 workers carried signs and chanted demands for better pay and benefits.
In the business community, there has been considerable debate over whether private franchisees can afford to lift salaries. A report by the National Employment Law Project showed that frontline fast-food workers in the U.S. earn a median hourly wage of $8.94, and they make up 89.1 percent of all fast-food industry jobs, while just 2.2 percent are managerial.
In addition, about 13 percent of fast-food workers make less than the federal minimum wage of $7.25, and more than 25 percent are raising at least one child, according to the Center for Economic and Policy Research.
But the National Restaurant Association says higher labor costs would prevent fast-food restaurants from making more hires.
“We welcome a debate on fair wages, but it should be based on facts,” Scott DeFife, vice president of policy and government affairs at the National Restaurant Association, told Al-Jazeera in an email. “The restaurant industry is the nation’s second largest private-sector employer and our industry is an industry of opportunity. Nine out of ten salaried restaurant workers, including owners and managers, started as hourly workers. The fact is, only five percent of restaurant employees earn the minimum wage and those that do are predominantly working part-time and half are teenagers.”
Tamara Green, 26, said she was participating in the McDonald’s strike because her minimum-wage pay at a Burger King in Brooklyn doesn’t begin to cover her $1,000 monthly rent.
“I try to live the American dream, but I just can’t do that on $7.25. It’s just impossible,” she said. “We’re so suffocated underneath assumptions that we’re nobody.”
Shenita Simon, 25, a mother of three children, said she barely makes more than minimum wage as a shift supervisor at a KFC in Brooklyn, earning $8 an hour working about 36 hours a week.
She told Al-Jazeera she was taking part in the strike at McDonald’s because if they were able to unionize “things like me getting burned with 190-degree water on my hands won’t happen anymore, because we’ll be supplied with adequate equipment. Things like simple oven gloves, they refuse to buy.”
In Raleigh, North Carolina, Julio Wilson was one of about 30 fast-food workers picketing outside a Little Caesars pizza restaurant. He said he earns $9 an hour and had worked there for about six months, but the pay was insufficient to support himself and his five-year-old daughter.
“I know I’m risking my job, but it’s my right to fight for what I deserve,” Wilson told BBC.