NEW YORK — Fast-food customers in search of burgers and fries today might run into striking workers instead.
Organizers say thousands of fast-food workers are set to stage walkouts in dozens of cities around the country, part of a push to get chains such as McDonald’s, Taco Bell and Wendy’s to pay workers higher wages.
It’s expected be the largest nationwide strike by fast-food workers, according to organizers. The biggest effort so far was earlier this summer, when about 2,200 of the nation’s millions of fast-food workers staged a one-day strike in seven cities.
Today’s planned walkouts follow a series of strikes that began in November in New York City, then spread to cities including Chicago, Detroit and Seattle. Workers say they want $15 an hour, which would be about $31,000 a year for full-time employees. That’s more than double the federal minimum wage, which many fast-food workers make, of $7.25 an hour, or $15,000 a year.
The move comes amid calls from the White House, some members of Congress and economists to raise the federal minimum wage, which was last increased in 2009. Most proposals seek a far more modest increase than the ones workers are asking for, with President Obama wanting to boost it to $9 an hour.
The push has brought considerable media attention to a staple of the fast-food industry – the so-called “McJobs” that are known for their low pay and limited prospects. But the workers taking part in the strikes still represent a tiny fraction of the broader industry. And it’s not clear whether the strikes today will shut down any restaurants. Organizers made their plans public earlier, giving managers time to adjust their staffing levels. More broadly, it’s not clear how many customers are aware of the movement, with turnout for past strikes relatively low in some cities.
As it stands, fast-food workers say they can’t live on what they’re paid.
Shaniqua Davis, 20, lives in the Bronx with her unemployed boyfriend and their 1-year-old daughter. Davis has worked at a McDonald’s a few blocks from her apartment for the past three months, earning $7.25 an hour. Her schedule varies, but she never gets close to 40 hours a week. “Forty? Never. They refuse to let you get to that (many) hours.”
Her weekly paycheck is $150 or much lower. “One of my paychecks, I only got $71 on there. So I wasn’t able to do much with that. My daughter needs stuff, I need to get stuff for my apartment,” said Davis, who plans to participate in the strike.
She pays the rent with public assistance but struggles to afford food, diapers, subway and taxi fares, cable TV, and other expenses with her paycheck.
The National Restaurant Association says the low wages reflect the fact that most fast-food workers tend to be younger and have little work experience. Scott DeFife, a spokesman for the group, says that doubling wages would hurt job creation.
Still, the actions are striking a chord in some corners.
Robert Reich, a worker advocate and former Labor Secretary in the Clinton administration, said that the struggles of living on low wages is hitting close to home for many because of the weak economic climate.
“More and more, people are aware of someone either in their wider circle of friends or extended family who has fallen on hard times,” Reich said.
Mary Kay Henry, the president of the Service Employees International Union, which is providing the fast-food strikes with financial support and training, said the actions in recent months show that fast-food workers can be mobilized, despite the industry’s relatively higher turnover rates and younger age.
“The reality has totally blown through the obstacles,” she said.