Strikes involving thousands of fast food workers across seven cities launched Monday in what organizers said could be the biggest labor action in the industry’s history.
Hundreds kicked off the demonstrations in New York City Monday with workers starting a 24-hour strike demanding a base wage of $15 per hour and the right to form a union. Over the next four days, similar strikes will occur in St. Louis, Chicago, Detroit, and Milwaukee, as well as Flint, Mich. and Kansas City, Mo.
As the campaign has grown in prominence, it has also drawn more ire from the Right. Perhaps the biggest indication of the movement’s success in commanding national attention is a full-page ad in Monday’s USA Today, purchased by the conservative Employment Policies Institute, which warns that increasing wages will lead to job losses.
Today, union-supported activist groups are staging walk-outs at restaurants in seven major cities, demanding a $15 hourly wage. This would have negative consequences for employees. Restaurants keep just a few cents in profit from each sales dollar, and won’t be able to afford current staffing levels when faced with a $15 minimum wage. Instead, they will be forced to replace employees with less-costly, automated alternatives like touch-screen ordering and payment devices.
While opponents of a minimum wage hike often argue that it would increase unemployment, empirical research on the subject is inconclusive. Fast food companies such as McDonald’s, which reported $1.4 billion in profits last quarter, have increased their profit margins since the 2008 financial collapse.
As the fast food protest movement grows, organizers hope the short, tactical strikes in cities will draw more workers and create the political momentum to raise wages.
“We’re building a movement of fast food workers in a way that has never really existed in the fast food industry,” said Jonathan Westin, an organizer for New York Communities for Change, who noted that this week is the first time the strikes have been coordinated across cities.
Thus far, the strikes have been more successful in expanding quickly than raising wages. The first strike took place in late November 2012 in New York City, and consisted of about 200 workers; since then, more than a thousand disgruntled fast food employees have walked off the job in New York and across the Midwest. In late May, the first West Coast fast food strike took place in Seattle.
“Initially, workers were pretty much focused on educating themselves, working within their own context and their own stores,” said Martin Rafanan, the campaign director for the group, St. Louis Can’t Survive on $7.25. “And that’s good, but what has happened is that workers are learning to reach out across stores.”
The success of strikes in other cities prompted demonstrations at home, said Gina Chiala, a spokesperson for Stand Up Kansas City.
“When we saw that New York went on strike, Chicago went on strike, and then St. Louis went on strike, we decided we needed to be a part of that,” Chiala said.
As it has grown in strength and visibility, the fast food campaign has attracted support from major political figures. The Congressional Progressive Caucus launched a campaign called “Raise Up America” which has taken efforts to associate itself with the fast food workers. Several members of the caucus, including its co-chair, Democratic Rep. Keith Ellison of Minnesota, were present at Monday’s actions in New York.
Krystal McLemore, a Taco Bell employee based in St. Louis, said she was not dissuaded by opposition to the campaign or the possibility of management retaliation.
“I feel like the organization has my back when it comes to that, so if they do try to retaliate, they’ll be there to back me up, 100%,” she said.
Similarly, Brooklyn-based McDonald’s employee Kareem Starks said he has little to lose by going out on strike.
“I don’t make much,” Starks said. “I get treated like crap. At he end of the day, should I stand up or take this? Should I stand up or live like this? … I can’t afford my shoes or afford my rent. Is that how you’re supposed to be living?”