29 Jul 2013

Burger that: as fast food workers strike across America

Fast food workers in cities across America have walked off the job to demand better pay, saying they are fed up with earning less than $10 an hour while top executives’ bonuses soar.

Macdonalds worker (getty)

Do not try asking for fries with this. Workers in seven cities across America are walking off the job – in an escalating protest involving some of the country’s biggest fast food chains.

Strikes are taking place in New York, Chicago, Detroit, Milwaukee, St Louis, Kansas City and Flint in Michigan – as part of a campaign to demand $15 an hour, just over double the minimum wage.

The walkout is being organised by the main food workers’ union and is backed by a range of religious and community groups, who say raising pay levels will benefit everyone.

The campaign is being led by Fast Food Forward, which says no-one can survive on just $7.25 an hour, the current minimum in New York. The campaign director Jonathan Westin told CBS television that workers could not keep their families going on such low pay,

“All of the workers are living in poverty…not being able to afford to put food on the table or take the train into work”, he said. More than 120,000 people have signed the group’s petition calling for wages to be increased.

Living in poverty

Workers in fast food restaurants like McDonald’s and Taco Bell often take home just $150 to $350 a week, and anger has been rising over the way that pay and bonuses for America’s top executives has soared over the last year.

President Obama has joined calls for the minimum wage to be raised to at least $9 an hour, a move which would directly benefit more than 13 million Americans, although the proposal has got nowhere with the Republican dominated Congress.

At a rally last week in Brooklyn, KFC employee Naquasia LeGrand told activists she wanted to improve things for the next generation. “I don’t want my kids suffering. I want to make sure they have a better future than I do.”

The protest movement has been growing in strength, including one effort by workers in Seattle to sue their employers over what they describe as “wage theft“. That is a term used to describe ways they claim companies fail to pay staff the wages they are owed.

The lawsuit highlights staff asked to work before or after their shift, working overtime without adequate compensation, working during breaks and not being repaid for necessary workplace expenditure like petrol or safety equipment.

Fast food nation

Asked about the protest, a spokesman from Domino’s told Salon magazine “we are often people’s second job”, and there was an outcry earlier this month after McDonald’s published an income calculator to help its workers budget their cash – which also assumed they had a second source of income.

The “Practical Money Skills” website includes a sample monthly budget, which includes a secondary income almost as high as their estimated McDonald’s pay – something, say activists, which shows just how impossible it really is to survive on the bare minimum.

Employers say they simply cannot afford to pay more, claiming they cannot squeeze their profit margins any further. But the fast food industry has become a byword not just for low pay but also a lack of job security, poor career prospects and almost no unionisation.

At a time when many middle class jobs have been wiped out by the economic recession, serving fries and flipping burgers is often the only employment avaialble: campaigners hope the growing strike action could force the industry into raising standards, to protect the image of some of America’s most famous brands.

Felicity Spector writes about US affairs for Channel 4 News