Fast-food workers: Why more strikes over $15 minimum wage

Protests for pay of $15 an hour and a union for fast-food and other low-wage workers are planned for Wednesday.

The fight to redefine a McJob is heating up.

Protests for pay of $15 an hour and a union for fast-food and other low-wage workers are set to take place around the country Wednesday, marking the biggest effort yet in an ongoing campaign by labor organizers.

The push comes just two weeks after McDonald's announced a pay bump for workers at its company-owned stores, suggesting the chain is trying to take control of its image as an employer.

The Fight for $15 campaign is being spearheaded by the Service Employees International Union and began in late 2012 with fast-food workers. Since then, the campaign has morphed to rally a variety of low-wage workers, including airport workers and home care workers. Adjunct professors will be among the latest to join the demonstrations Wednesday, which organizers say are planned for more than 230 cities and college campuses.

Kendall Fells, organizing director for Fight for $15, said McDonald's remains a focus of the protests and that the company's recent pay bump shows fast-food workers already have a de facto union.

"It shows the workers are winning," he said.

The first national pay policy announced by McDonald's includes a starting salary that's $1 above the local minimum wage, and the ability to accrue paid time off. It only applies to workers at company-owned stores, however, which account for about 10 percent of more than 14,300 locations. That means McDonald's is digging in its heels over a central issue for labor organizers: Whether it has the power to set wages at franchised restaurants.

McDonald's, Burger King and Wendy's say they don't control the employment decisions at franchised restaurants. The SEIU is working to change that and hold McDonald's Corp. responsible for labor conditions at franchised restaurants in multiple ways, including lawsuits.

The demonstrations got an early start Tuesday afternoon in Boston, where several hundred people including college students, low-wage workers and their supporters gathered for a rally. In the evening, protesters in Detroit gathered inside a McDonald's, and organizers say three employees walked off the job as part of the protests.

In an emailed statement, McDonald's said it respects the right to "peacefully protest" and that its restaurants will remain open Wednesday. In the past, it said only about 10 to 15 McDonald's workers out of about 800,000 have participated.

In a recent column in The Chicago Tribune, McDonald's CEO Steve Easterbrook described the pay hike and other perks as "an initial step" and said he wants to transform McDonald's into a "modern, progressive burger company."

But that transformation will have to take place as labor organizers continue rallying public support for low-wage workers. Ahead of the protests this week, a study funded by the SEIU found working families rely on $153 billion in public assistance a year as a result of their low wages.

Already, organizers say the Fight for $15 is changing the way people think about low-wage work.

Last year, more than a dozen states and multiple cities raised their minimum wages, according to the National Employment Law Project. Wal-Mart Stores Inc., which has also been targeted with protests for higher wages and better treatment for workers, also recently announced pay hikes.

Robert Reich, former Labor secretary and a professor of public policy at the University of California, Berkeley, said stagnating wages for lower-income workers are also helping change negative attitudes about unions.

"People are beginning to wonder if they'd be better off with bargaining power," Reich said.

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Follow Candice Choi at www.twitter.com/candicechoi

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