New York fast-food workers turn up heat in bid for better pay

Demonstrators protesting low wages and the lack of union representation in the fast food industry chant and hold signs outside of a McDonald's restaurant near Times Square in New York, April 4, 2013.
Demonstrators protesting low wages and the lack of union representation in the fast food industry chant and hold signs outside of a McDonald’s restaurant near Times Square on Thursday.

Hundreds of fast-food restaurant workers in New York City are expected to walk off the job Thursday in what organizers said would be their largest rally yet for better pay.

Employees from familiar chains such as McDonald’s Corp., Wendy’s and Yum Inc.’s KFC are seeking to roughly double their hourly pay to $15. They also want the right to form a union without intimidation or retaliation.

Winning such concessions will be difficult. Low-wage, low-skill workers lack political clout and face significantly higher unemployment than college graduates.

As many as 400 workers from more than five dozen restaurants around New York City have committed to turn out for protests planned at various locations, said Jonathan Westin, director of Fast Food Forward, which organized Thursday’s actions and is backed by labor, community and religious groups.

That turnout would be twice as large as in November, when the city’s fast-food workers also walked off the job, Westin said.

And, he said, the majority of employees from some individual fast-food outlets have vowed to participate in Thursday’s actions.

“It’s going to be difficult for these businesses to operate this time,” Westin said.

The nearly $200 billion U.S. fast-food industry has long been known as a employer of teenagers and students. But the 18-month “Great Recession” that began in December 2007 helped change that. It destroyed thousands of middle-income jobs and forced more adults to seek part-time, largely minimum-wage work flipping burgers and manning fryers.

In his State of the Union address in February, President Barack Obama proposed raising the federal minimum wage as a way to help lift some workers out of poverty — a plan critics said would kill jobs by burdening small businesses with higher costs.

The state of New York is already on that path. Its recently passed budget included plans to raise the state minimum wage, now at $7.25, to $9 by the end of 2015.

But even with that 24 percent hike, New York’s minimum wage would remain below the roughly $11 hourly pay needed to lift a family of four above the poverty line.

Such pay-boosting efforts are welcome but not enough for workers struggling to make ends meet, said fast-food employee Joseph Barrera, who plans to join Thursday’s protests.

The 22-year-old says he has earned $7.25 per hour for the 10 months he has worked at a KFC restaurant in Brooklyn. Even with a side job as a freelance mechanic, he still stretches to cover rent on his basement apartment that has no windows or heat.

“Anywhere where the cost of living is very, very high, $9 is not enough. Everyone should be able to make a living wage,” Barrera said.

McDonald’s Corp., the world’s biggest fast-food chain by sales, in November said that the majority of its namesake U.S. restaurants are owned and operated by independent businessmen and women who offer pay and benefits competitive within the quick service restaurant industry.


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