Fast Food Strikes Go Viral: Workers Expected to Protest Low Wages in 35 Cities Thursday

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People gather outside of a Wendy's restaurant as part of a one day strike calling for higher wages for fast food workers in New York, July 29, 2013.

A growing movement among fast food workers to demand higher wages is expected to gain momentum this Thursday as strikes and protests against the country’s biggest restaurant chains spread to the South and the West Coast.

Low-wage workers at fast food restaurants like McDonald’s and retailers such as Macy’s are gearing up for a nationwide strike just before Labor Day weekend. The striking workers are demanding the right to unionize and at least $15 an hour in pay, more than double the current national minimum wage of $7.25. Organizers say Thursday’s strikes could touch as many as 35 cities.

“These companies that own these fast food restaurants, they make way too much money off the backs of the employees,” says Dearius Merritt, a 24-year-old worker at Church’s Chicken in Memphis who earns $13 an hour and plans to take part in his first strike Thursday. “I’m in the store every day with these workers that make $7.25…If I’m 30 years old and this is what I have to do to survive, then I deserve a living wage off of it.”

The rumblings against the long-standing economics of fast food began last November in New York, when about 200 restaurant workers went on strike in a one-day protest. By July the movement had ballooned to include thousands of workers across seven other cities, including Chicago, Detroit, and Kansas City. Now, with workers in places like Los Angeles, Memphis, and Raleigh getting involved—with extensive financial backing from the Service Employees International Union—organizers and labor experts expect this week’s strike to dwarf previous protests.

(MORE: Fast Food Strikes: Unable to Unionize, Workers Borrow Tactics From ‘Occupy’)

“It’s absolutely going to continue to grow,” says Steven Ashby, a professor at the University of Illinois School of Labor and Employment Relations. “I see no signs from all the people I’ve talked with that it’s going to falter. At this point it hasn’t reached its peak yet. The energy of the workers, their passion, their commitment, is very, very high. They basically feel like, ‘We’ve got nothing to lose.’”

Low pay for fast-food workers is nothing new, but a tough job market following the recession has led to more positions behind the cash register being occupied by family breadwinners instead of teenagers. According to a recent NBC News report, teens now comprise 16% of the fast food industry’s workers, down from 25% a decade ago.

“Because of the difficulty of getting jobs in general…for people with relatively modest education levels, you have a lot of people working in these companies who are trying to support a family based upon their earnings alone,” says Ronald Ehrenberg, a professor of industrial and labor relations and economics at Cornell University. “That’s very, very difficult to do.”

So far, protesters have had only tiny victories. Jonathan Westin, who helped organize New York’s first fast food strike as the executive director of New York Communities for Change, says some local workers have seen wage increases of 25 to 50 cents per hour. Ashby says some Chicago strikers have also gotten higher wages. And a few restaurants have suffered on the days of strikes—a May walkout in Seattle forced multiple fast food chains to close for the day.

(MORE: McDonald’s and the Fate of the Middle Class)

On the whole, though, fast food corporations and franchises aren’t convinced that they need to double their base pay. Officials at the National Restaurant Association, the industry’s lobbying arm, point out that only 5% of restaurant employees earn the federal minimum wage and that 7 out of 10 of fast-food workers earning an entry-level wage are under the age of 25. In a statement Burger King noted that 99% of its locations in the U.S. are owned by franchisees who make independent hiring and firing decisions. McDonald’s said the organization aims to offer competitive pay and benefits to employees. A former CEO of the company has argued that increasing the minimum wage to $15 would “absolutely” kill jobs.

Experts are skeptical that a $15 per hour base wage is likely to be implemented. With almost 2.4 million fast food workers employed in the United States, the number striking is still relatively miniscule. Getting a huge number of people to abandon their posts would be a challenge because they could be subject to immediate firing for missing work as non-union employees.  But less dramatic results, like smaller raises from individual franchises and perhaps a modest increase to the minimum wage, might be attainable. If the strikes continue to grow in scale—it’s already the biggest labor movement in the history of the fast food industry—there will be more pressure on fast food companies and even legislators to make some kind of concession to workers. “This doesn’t end at the strike,” says Caroline Durocher, a Subway employee in Seattle who plans to walk out on Thursday. “We’re going to keep going. We’re not going to shut up.”