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Schooled by Occupy movement, fast-food workers put demands on the table (+video)

Hundreds of fast-food workers protested in New York Tuesday, demanding their minimum wages be doubled as part of a nationwide effort that has drawn on the organizational lessons of the Occupy movement.

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“Workers are saying, enough is enough, it’s time to organize, it’s time for something to change,” she says. “So I think the fast food strikes that you’re seeing this week are just one of a whole series of low-wage workers in different sectors organizing to unionize, to demand a living wage, and to say, ‘We deserve more respect and dignity on the job.’ ”

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Yet while the strikes have received support from unions such as the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), headquartered in Washington, D.C., many are skeptical that a fast-food workers' union is viable, simply because of the nature of the business. The National Restaurant Association estimates that fast food restaurants have 75% employee turnover rates, for example. 

“This walkout seems to be more for public opinion and educating,” says Ed Wertheim, professor of management and organizational development at Northeastern University in Boston. [Editor's note: The original version of this story misspelled Ed Wertheim's last name.]

“Organizing for this large of a group of workers is extremely difficult, and many of these people are not going to stay in and continue the fight,” he says. “Many can and will decide to move on and get a job that pays more – ostensibly abandoning ship for the next group of workers to inherit the problem.”

But unions recognize that with membership still on the decline, these types of sectors of low-wage workers – who are often urban immigrants and minorities – may represent a new constituency.

“I think there’s been a real effort on the part of labor unions and community organizations to work together to collaborate, to say, what can we do to make these strikes real?” says Klein.

“We are proud to support these workers,” says Mary Kay Henry, president of SEIU. “The best inspiration has been from the workers, because this is a very dramatic action.... It’s not an easy decision to make, it puts pressure on families, but I think it represents how determined people are to turn things around, not just for themselves, but for their families and communities.”

Like many of the young protesters this week, LeGrand, who works at two KFC restaurants, one in Brooklyn and another in Queens, was surprised at how energized the protests made her feel. She even was able to stand up and speak to hundreds of people gathered near Prospect Park in Brooklyn – something she had never done before.

“It just felt good,” she says. “I just enjoyed how this campaign is getting bigger and stronger – every time I come out, it’s always the biggest crowd, it’s always more people, more media, more clergy. And you know, it felt so good.… Young people are part of this campaign, and we as a community are coming together to better our people and the future.”

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