4 Sep 2014

Striking US fast food workers arrested in fight for more pay

Dozens of protesters have been arrested in major American cities as they take to the streets for better working conditions. But can they change a country with a strong tradition of free labour market?

McDonald’s flagship store in Times Square was besieged by 400 protesters where police arrested 19 people for disordely conduct. In total, over 80 demonstrators were arrested in cities across the United States, from New York to Las Vegas, where streets were blocked by vocal workers waving placards.

Some officers expressed sympathy with the demonstration’s aims if not its tactics, one reportedly telling journalists: “We get less starting pay than what they’re asking for, so we get it. But there’s a better way.”

Meanwhile, a spokesperson for fast-food chain Wendy’s said: “We’re proud to give thousands of people, who come to us for an entry-level job, the opportunity to learn and develop important skills, so that they can grow with us or move on to something else.”



But among fast-food workers protesting in the US today, there’s little doubt that America’s junk food giants could afford to give them a bigger slice of the takings. But have they bitten off more than they can chew?

Burger and fries, with a shake on the side – there are few things more stereotypically associated with the US. But does your Big Mac or burrito also embody the American meritocratic dream?

That’s the argument coming from the National Restaurant Association (NRA) in response to the fast food workers’ protests. Citing research that shows that 78 per cent of fast-food servers believe the industry provides “an opportunity for people who want to succeed based on their own hard work”, the NRA describes fast-food outlets as “a critical employer that trains America’s workforce and provides a pathway towards upward mobility and success.”

Not so, according to protesters in states including Chicago, New York and North Carolina, who have stepped out from behind the counter to “Fight for $15” and the right to form a union. They say that working as a server in a fast-food outlet is now a career in itself, but one that comes with neither a healthy pay packet nor benefits such as health insurance.

“At first you feel embarrassed, like it’s your fault”

Fast food veteran Terrence Wise has seen the industry change. He started out aged 16 at Tex-Mex chain Taco Bell, and has spent the past ten years as a crew member at Burger King in Kansas City, Missouri. In the early days, Terrence says, companies took suggestions from their employees and offered opportunities for development. He doesn’t recognise that anymore.

Working 35 hours per week on a salary of $9.50 per hour, Terrence is better off than most of his colleagues. But he and his fiancee, a full-time nursing assistant, still struggle to buy shoes for their three daughters to start the school year. They are entitled to food stamps, and have recently fallen behind on rent. “At first you feel embarrassed, like it’s your fault”, Terrence says, “then you start talking and you realise everyone around you is in the same situation.”

Terrence is keen to point out that there is often more to his job than meets the eye. “We don’t just flip burgers, drop fries and say have a nice day… we break the oven apart to clean it, we paint the stores, it’s hard work.” He thinks that when the American people realise that they are subsidising low wages through the benefit system, they will start to change their minds.

A changing political conversation?

This is not the first time that US fast-food workers have gone on strike. The ongoing campaign is backed by the Service Employees International Union, leading the NRA to allege that this is little more than a “self-interested attempt to boost their dwindling membership”. Terrence disagrees. He’s been involved from the beginning, and believes the movement is having some success – “we’re changing the conversation, we’re making America talk.”

They’ve even got the President talking. In this week’s Labor Day speech, President Obama directly referred to the protestors, saying that if he were in the service industry, he too would want “an honest day’s pay for an honest day’s work”.

“All across the country right now, there’s a national movement going on made up of fast food workers organizing to lift wages so they can provide for their families with pride and dignity” – President Obama, 31st August 2014

Ahead of November’s mid- term elections, his pitch for Democratic votes was loud and clear: “If we had a Congress that cared about policies that actually help working people, I promise you we could get everything done that we’ve talked about doing.”

In the US, the minimum wage is established by the Federal Government, at a rate of $7.25 per hour. But individual states are free to set their own rates, which vary up to $9.50 in Washington DC. Faced with opposition in Congress, President Obama has so far failed to deliver on his pledge to raise the minimum wage to $10.10, leading individual states to debate increases for themselves. As a result, eleven states have so far voted to increase workers’ pay, among them Michigan, which in May became the first state with a Republican-led legislature to raise its minimum wage this year.

Responding to today’s events, McDonald’s emphasised that “approximately 90% of our US restaurants are independently owned and operated by franchisees… we do not determine wages set by our more than 3,000 US franchisees.” The company says they support “fair wages aligned with a competitive marketplace” and believe that “any minimum wage increase should be implemented over time.”

Today’s protestors are out to show that they deserve more money, that they deserve a union. But given the deep divides in US politics, it may prove difficult to galvanize support for their cause.

Hannah Miller is Channel 4 News Researcher in the US.