Carrying signs emblazoned with slogans like "Super size my pay!", employees of McDonald’s, KFC, and other fast food chains staged the first day of a strike in at least seven cities Monday. Their demand: raise wages to $15 an hour.
The walk-outs emptied fast food restaurants in New York City, Chicago, and St. Louis, among others, mobilizing support among not only workers but also clergy and city council representatives. Chanting, “Workers have a right. Fight, fight, fight!” the strikers reportedly cleared Manhattan’s Fifth Avenue McDonald’s of all of its employees but managers Monday afternoon. Online, supporters chimed in with tweets like “#iamfastfood” and “Poverty wages. #imnotlovingit.”
Not for the first time, strikers expressed their frustrations with the lack of unions, limited job mobility, and poor compensation that they say characterizes the fast food industry. According to the National Employment Law Project, the average front-line fast food employee makes $8.94 an hour — scarcely more than half of what strikers say is a “living wage.”
At the same time, the $200 billion fast food industry has shown no signs of flagging growth. Analysts widely agree that, despite consumers’ concerns about health, fast food has continued to grow off of rising demand in emerging economies. The result: more employees are joining an industry that has been assailed by critics for exploiting workers.
“I know you’re tired of suffering,” KFC employee Naquasia LeGrand said to protesters at a rally in Brooklyn last week. “I want to make sure [my kids] have a better future than I did.”
Despite public backlash, fast food companies have repeatedly defended their treatment of employees. The restaurant industry maintains that raising wages would saddle businesses with untenable costs, and executives from Burger King have said in statements that its restaurants “have provided an entry point into the workforce for millions of Americans.”
Labor groups, however, tend to disagree about the reality of mobility in the industry. In a report last week that scorned fast food’s “poverty-level wages,” the NELP said, “Front-line jobs in the fast food industry — including cooks, cashiers, delivery workers, and other non-managerial positions — rank among the lowest-paying occupations in the US economy.”
Of the approximately 4.1 million people who work in the American fast food industry, just 2.2 percent hold managerial, professional, or technical positions, according to the NELP. That means the vast majority of fast food employees will never advance or “move up the ladder” from their low-wage jobs.
The lucrative possibility of owning a fast food franchise is also out of most employees’ reach. There is just one franchise owner for every 293 McDonald’s employees, and it costs a minimum of $750,000 for an entrepreneur to apply for a franchise, according to McDonald’s website.
“If front-line fast food workers are to have any meaningful opportunities for upward mobility, significant reforms to pay standards and occupational structures within the fast food industry will be necessary,” the NELP concluded.
Whether or not Monday’s strike will convince companies to do so remains unclear. The walkout is just the latest in a string of demonstrations over the last year that have attracted public attention but not yet resulted in the called-for $15 wages.
At press time, none of the fast food chains had commented on the strikes.