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'Super-size' strike: Why fast-food workers walked out for higher wages

After nearly a year of protest in New York City, fast-food workers expanded their picket lines Thursday to dozens of cities to demand $15-an-hour wages. Strikers say many workers are older, some supporting families, and can't live on $7.25 an hour.

By Chelsea B. SheasleyCorrespondent / August 29, 2013

Workers and their supporters protest outside a Burger King in Los Angeles on Thursday. The event is part of a broad strike by fast-food workers – the largest ever for the industry – to call for wages of $15 an hour.

Lucy Nicholson/Reuters

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Fast-food workers across America are going on strike Thursday in what they hope will be the largest strike ever for their industry.

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Asia Editor

Chelsea Sheasley is the Monitor's Asia Editor, overseeing regional coverage for CSMonitor.com and the weekly magazine.

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Workers in at least 35 cities are expected to picket chains like McDonald’s, Burger King, Kentucky Fried Chicken, and Wendy’s to demand higher wages and the right to unionize.

In July, about 2,200 fast-food workers participated in a one-day strike in seven cities, the largest effort to date. That followed nearly a year of protests that originated in New York City in November 2012.

“Hold the burgers! Hold the fries! Make our wages super-size!” chanted strikers outside a McDonald’s in Detroit Thursday. 

Protesters are calling for $15-an-hour wages, more than double the federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour, which would increase the annual earnings of a full-time employee from $15,000 a year to $31,000 a year.

While a young workforce and quick turnover have traditionally characterized the fast-food industry, protesters say the Great Recession caused more parents and older workers to rely on fast-food jobs. But they can’t survive on current wages, they say.

“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,” Ronald Ehrenberg, a professor of industrial and labor relations and economics at Cornell University, told Time. “That’s very, very difficult to do.”

Industry officials counter that the demographics of fast-food workers haven’t substantially changed. Officials at the National Restaurant Association say only 5 percent of restaurant employees earn the federal minimum wage and that 7 of 10 fast-food workers earning an entry-level wage are under the age of 25.

Moreover, the number of strikers is also only a small percentage of the roughly 2.4 million fast-food workers in the United States, opponents say.

Supporters point to a study by the Economic Policy Institute that calculated that 88 percent of workers in jobs paying less than $10 an hour are older than 20, and a third are older than 40, reports USA Today.

At the federal level, President Obama and some members of Congress have pressed for a raise in the minimum wage – but nowhere near the protesters’ demands of $15 an hour. Mr. Obama supports a $9-an-hour minimum wage.

On Thursday, Labor Secretary Thomas Perez said the fast-food strikes show the need to raise the minimum wage.

A complicating factor in the fast-food wage fight is that most Mickey-Ds and Burger Kings are franchised, and local owners set wages.

Here is a sampling of voices from protesters across the country:

Chicago

“Nancy Salgado, 26, of Chicago, earns $8.25 an hour, Illinois' minimum wage, as a McDonald's cashier, though she has worked for the company for 10 years. Ms. Salgado, who has no health benefits, says she relies on Medicaid to provide health care for her two children and often skimps on their clothing purchases,” reports USA Today.

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