Business

Fast-food workers walk out for more pay

Posted August 29, 2013 2:35 a.m. EDT
Updated August 29, 2013 5:09 p.m. EDT

— Many Fast-food customers in search of burgers and fries on Thursday ran into striking workers instead.

Organizers say thousands of fast-food workers staged walkouts in dozens of cities around the country Thursday, part of a push to get chains such as McDonald's, Taco Bell and Wendy's to pay workers higher wages.

Walk-outs were held in Raleigh, Greensboro, Charlotte and Durham, where workers assembled at 6 a.m. to demand the right to unionize and a raise to $15 per hour.

“When I saw the strikes on TV earlier this summer in New York and Chicago, I said to my co-workers, 'We need to bring this to Durham,’” said Willieta Dukes, a 39-year-old Burger King employee.

A $15 hourly wage, almost double the $8.56/hour average for North Carolina fast-food workers, would equal about $31,000 a year for full-time employees. It's more than double the federal minimum wage, which many fast food workers make, of $7.25 an hour, or $15,000 a year.

Dukes has been at the Durham Burger King for about a year. She hoped to be full time but recently saw her hours cut to about 27 a week.

"I enjoy my work. I enjoy serving people," she said. "Why should I have to do something else when they cut back on our hours? They tell us we're good. Why can't they pay us what we are worth?"

Marcel McGirk, a cashier at a Burger King in Raleigh, said he agrees with some who think $15 an hour is too high for the industry. But he hopes aiming higher will help.

"Anything would be better than nothing. I agree $15 is pretty steep, but if we can push for it and get it, why not? We'll take it a step at a time," said McGirk, who still earns minimum wage after nearly 11 years in the industry.

Two rallies were planned for Raleigh – at 11:30 a.m. on Capital Boulevard at New Hope Road and at 3:30 p.m. downtown from Martin Street Baptist Church.

The lunchtime protest at the pizza restaurant drew more than a dozen supporters waving signs that read, "On strike for a better future," "We are worth more," and "Can't survive on $7.25."

"It's a billion-dollar industry, and they can pay us what we're worth," said Tenesha Hueston, a shift manager at a Burger King in New Bern.

The single mother of three said it's difficult to provide for her family on her low wage. But Hueston, who has worked in fast food for 16 years, said "I love what I do."

Thursday's action was expected be the largest nationwide strike by fast-food workers, according to organizers. The biggest effort so far was over the summer when about 2,200 of the nation's millions of fast-food workers staged a one-day strike in seven cities.

Thursday's planned walkouts follow a series of strikes that began last November in New York City, then spread to cities including Chicago, Detroit and Seattle. 

Dukes said she expects the restaurant will retaliate against those who walk out. 

"At this time I don’t see much more they can do to me," she said. "What more do I have to lose? I lost my home. There’s not much more you can take from me."

After her hours were cut, Dukes said, she had to move in with one of her children.

The North Carolina Restaurant & Lodging Association issued a statement Thursday emphasizing that restaurant jobs help the economy and are valuable training grounds for all kinds of careers.

"While North Carolina's unemployment rate remains one of the nation's highest, the restaurant industry has been an economic bright spot in our state by providing good-paying, reliable jobs," association president Lynn Minges said in a statement. "In the last year alone, more than 21,000 jobs were added in this sector in our state – keeping thousands of North Carolina families on solid financial ground and strengthening our state's economy."

The move comes amid calls from the White House, some members of Congress and economists to hike the federal minimum wage, which was last raised in 2009. But most proposals seek a far more modest increase than the ones workers are asking for, with President Barack Obama wanting to boost it to $9 an hour.

Organizers of the walk-out in Durham said a single parent with one child would need to make $20 per hour just to pay for basic necessities.

The push has brought considerable media attention to a staple of the fast-food industry — the so-called "McJobs" that are known for their low pay and limited prospects. But the workers taking part in the strikes still represent a tiny fraction of the broader industry. And it's not clear if the strikes on Thursday will shut down any restaurants because organizers made their plans public earlier in a call for workers around the country to participate, which gave managers time to adjust their staffing levels. More broadly, it's not clear how many customers are aware of the movement, with turnout for past strikes relatively low in some cities.

McDonald's Corp. and Burger King Worldwide Inc. say that they don't make decisions about pay for the independent franchisees that operate the majority of their U.S. restaurants.

For the restaurants it does own, McDonald's said in a statement that pay starts at minimum wage but the range goes higher, depending on the employee's position and experience level. It said that raising entry-level wages would mean higher overall costs, which could result in higher prices on menus.

"That would potentially have a negative impact on employment and business growth in our restaurants, as well as value for our customers," the company said in a statement.

The Wendy's Co. and Yum Brands Inc., which owns KFC, Pizza Hut and Taco Bell, did not respond to a request for comment.

The National Restaurant Association says the low wages reflect the fact that most fast-food workers tend to be younger and have little work experience. Scott DeFife, a spokesman for the group, says that doubling wages would hurt job creation, noting that fast-food chains are already facing higher costs for ingredients, as well as new regulations that will require them to pay more in health care costs.

Still, the actions are striking a chord in some corners.

Robert Reich, a worker advocate and former labor secretary in the Clinton administration, said that the struggles of living on low wages is hitting close to home for many because of the weak economic climate.

"More and more, people are aware of someone either in their wider circle of friends or extended family who has fallen on hard times," Reich said.

Mary Kay Henry, president of the Service Employees International Union, which is providing the fast-food strikes with financial support and training, said the actions in recent months show that fast-food workers can be mobilized, despite the industry's relatively higher turnover rates and younger age.

"The reality has totally blown through the obstacles," she said.