Fast-food workers and labor organizers are marching, waving signs and chanting in cities across the country Thursday amid a push for higher wages.
Organizers say employees planned to forgo work in 100 cities, with rallies set for another 100 cities. But it's not clear what the actual turnout has been or how many of the participants are workers. By afternoon, disruptions seemed minimal or temporary at the targeted restaurants.
The actions began about a year ago and are spearheaded by the Service Employees International Union, which has spent millions to bankroll local worker groups and organize publicity for the demonstrations. At a time when there's growing national and international attention on economic disparities, advocacy groups and Democrats are also hoping to build public support to raise the federal minimum wage of $7.25. That comes to about $15,000 a year for full-time work.
Protesters are calling for pay of $15 an hour, but the figure is seen more as a rallying point than a near-term possibility.
In New York City, about 100 protesters blew whistles and beat drums while marching into a McDonald's at around 6:30 a.m.; one startled customer grabbed his food and fled as they flooded the restaurant, while another didn't look up from eating and reading amid their chants of “We can't survive on $7.25!”
Community leaders took turns giving speeches for about 15 minutes until police arrived and ordered protesters out of the store. The crowd continued to demonstrate outside for about 45 minutes. A McDonald's manager declined to be interviewed and asked that the handful of customers not be bothered.
Later in the day, about 50 protesters rallied outside a Wendy's in Brooklyn, with their presence discouraging customers from entering.
In Washington, D.C., about 100 people protested outside a McDonald's in the Smithsonian's Air and Space Museum. Only a handful of the protesters said they worked at the restaurant and none were scheduled to work Thursday.
At one point, about a dozen protesters entered the store, but security guards prevented them from approaching the service counter or interfering with customers.
In Detroit, about 50 demonstrators turned out for a pre-dawn rally in front of a McDonald's. A few employees said they weren't working but a manager and other employees kept the restaurant open.
Julius Waters, a 29-year-old McDonald's maintenance worker who was among the protesters, said it's hard making ends meet on his wage of $7.40 an hour.
“I need a better wage for myself, because, right now, I'm relying on aid, and $7.40 is not able to help me maintain taking care of my son. I'm a single parent,” Waters said.
The push for higher pay in fast food 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.
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 helped put their wages in the spotlight.
Berlin Rosen, a political consulting and public relations firm based in New York City, has coordinated communications efforts and connecting organizers with media outlets. The firm says its clients are the coalitions in each city, such as Fast Food Forward and Fight for 15. The Service Employees International Union helped establish those groups and is also listed on Berlin Rosen's website as a client.
The National Restaurant Association, an industry lobbying group, said most protesters were union workers and that “relatively few” restaurant employees have participated in past actions. It called the demonstrations a “campaign engineered by national labor groups.”
McDonald's said in a statement that it offers employees advancement opportunities, competitive pay and benefits.
In the meantime, the protests are getting some high-powered support from the White House. In an economic policy speech Wednesday, President Barack Obama mentioned fast-food and retail workers “who work their tails off and are still living at or barely above poverty” in his call for raising the federal minimum wage.
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 an increase in the minimum to $8.25 an hour, up from $7.25 an hour.