An organized labor movement that began at a single New York McDonald’s about a year ago is planned to spread to around 100 cities this week. Fast-food workers nationwide are redoubling their efforts to earn higher wages with a more aggressive set of one-day strikes that organizers say will hit every region of the U.S.
Low-wage workers at restaurants such as McDonald’s, Wendy’s and other fast food chains are expected to walk off the job on Thursday. The workers are demanding an increase in pay to $15 per hour—what they call a living wage—and the right to unionize. The federal minimum wage is currently $7.25 per hour, and fast food workers earn an average hourly wage of about $9, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Over the course of the last year, the fast-food protests, which are being backed by union groups such as the Service Employees International Union, have expanded greatly in scope. Last November about 200 workers went on strike in New York, a number that was already the “biggest wave of job actions in the history of America’s fast-food industry,” according to the New York Times. By July thousands of workers in seven other cities had also engaged in strikes. A daylong strike at the end of August spread to more than 50 cities, including places in the union-averse Deep South. On Thursday, Charleston, South Carolina and Providence, Rhode Island and Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania will be among the new locations where workers will strike, according to organizers.
During previous protests, the National Restaurant Association, the restaurant industry’s lobbying arm, has pointed out that only 5 percent of fast food workers earn the federal minimum wage and most employees earning entry-level wages are under 25. At least one fast food executives has claimed that a $15 per hour wage would kill jobs. It’s hard to say just how much a doubling of wages would affect menu prices because most individual fast-food locations are franchised to independent owners, whose financial data is private.
But strike organizers say these fast food chains can afford to share some of their large profits with workers. An analysis by TIME earlier this year found that profit margins for privately held fast-food businesses are on the rise. McDonald’s, the world’s largest fast food chain, had a $1.52 billion quarterly profit last quarter, up from $1.46 billion a year earlier. But same-store sales are flat for the fast food giant, which could lead to Wall Street pressure to lower costs, not increase them.
So far the direct results of the walkouts have been far below organizers’ stated goals. Workers in some areas have seen wage increases in the range of 25 to 50 cents per hour, and some workers fired for walking out have had their jobs restored thanks to community pressure. The biggest result of the walkouts may be as political fodder to advocate for an increase to the federal minimum wage. President Obama advocated for a $9 minimum wage during his State of the Union speech, and he is now backing Democratic legislation to increase the minimum wage to $10.10 per hour. Either move would likely be viewed as a victory for fast food workers and labor organizers.