Latest News & Current Events

US fast-food workers strike over low wages

Fast-food workers and labor organizers marched, waving signs and chanting in cities across the country Thursday amid a push for higher wages.  Demonstrations by fast-food workers planned in 100 cities are part of push to raise the federal minimum wage of $7.25.

In Chicago, hundreds of protesters gathered outside a McDonalds at 6.15am. As a large "Christmas Grinch" ambled about in freezing temperatures, demonstrators chanted for the minimum wage to be increased to $15 per hour.

It was the first of nine strikes in Chicago, with employees at McDonalds, Wendy's, Walgreens, Macy's and Sears also due to walk off shift. Low wage workers were due to strike across 100 cities through the day, including Boston, Detroit, New York City, Oakland, Los Angeles and St Louis.

"To put it in perspective, yesterday I got paid, today I have not a dollar in my pocket," said Akilarose Thompson, 24. She was on strike from the McDonalds in Chicago's West Town – the scene of Thursday morning's protest that kicked off actions around the city.

Thompson has worked at McDonalds for almost a year, serving customers on the cash register or on the drive-thru window. She got a pay rise in June and now earns $8.28 an hour – three cents above Illinois's minimum wage of $8.25. Thompson works a second job too, at Red Lobster, but still has to go to food banks to support her and her 15-month-old daughter.

"Sometimes two or three a month. Lots of times you can only go to the same one once a month, so I find different ones to go to. I have to in order to put food on the table," she said.

"It is so depressing. You put a smile on because you're in customer service and you have to. But on the inside it really breaks you down when you're always at work but you're always broke."

She is not alone. The Greater Chicago food depository, which donates food through banks, pantries and soup kitchens, says it helps 678,000 adults and children in the Chicago metropolitan area every year.

The hardest thing, Thompson said, is the compromises she is forced to make because she does not earn enough money. She lives in West Humboldt Park, an area blighted by drug dealing. She worries about not being able to provide for her daughter.

Tyeisha Batts, a 27-year-old employee at Burger King, was among those taking part in the demonstrations planned throughout the day in New York City. She said she has been working at the location for about seven months and earns $7.25 an hour.

"My boss took me off the schedule because she knows I'm participating," Batts said. She said she hasn't been retaliated against but that the manager warned that employees who didn't arrive on time Thursday would be turned away for their shifts. Batts said she gets only between 10 and 20 hours of work a week because she thinks her employers want to avoid making her a full-time worker. Under the new health care law, workers who average 30 hours a week would be eligible for employer-sponsored health coverage starting in 2015.

Despite the growing attention on the struggles of low-wage workers, the push for higher pay in the fast-food industry faces an uphill battle. The industry competes aggressively on value offerings and companies have warned that they would need to raise prices if wages were hiked. Most fast-food locations are also owned and operated by franchisees, which lets companies such as McDonald's Corp., Burger King Worldwide Inc. and Yum Brands Inc. say that they don't control worker pay.

However, labor advocates have pointed out that companies control many other aspects of restaurant operations through their franchise agreements, including menus, suppliers and equipment.

Fast-food workers have historically been seen as difficult to unionize, given the industry's high turnover rates. But the Service Employees International Union, which represents more than 2 million workers in health care, janitorial and other industries, has been providing considerable organizational and financial support to the push for higher pay over the past year.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., has promised a vote on the wage hike by the end of the year. But the measure is not expected to gain traction in the House, where Republican leaders oppose it.

Supporters of wage hikes have been more successful at the state and local level. California, Connecticut and Rhode Island raised their minimum wages this year. Last month, voters in New Jersey approved a hike in the minimum to $8.25 an hour, up from $7.25 an hour.


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