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Fast-food workers walk out across the country

Stephon Johnson | 9/4/2013, 12:36 p.m. | Updated on 9/5/2013, 12:36 p.m.
Fast-food workers around the country walked off the job last Thursday in the largest strike ever to hit the industry.
Fast food worker's strikers at the McDonald's in Times Square on April 4, 2013 Photo by Courtenay Brown

Fast-food workers around the country walked off the job last Thursday in the largest strike ever to hit the industry. Workers are demanding a wage of $15 an hour and the right to form a union without any retaliation or intervention from management.

Cities like Atlanta, Detroit, Indianapolis, Houston, Los Angeles and New York were the locations of just some of the staged walkouts for what workers call a “living wage.” The walkouts hit close to 1,000 national fast-food establishments, including Burger King, Wendy’s, McDonald’s and KFC. In some cities, retail workers joined the fray as Macy’s, Sears, Victoria’s Secret and Walgreens employees walked off their jobs. In Seattle, coffee baristas followed suit.

The walkouts follwed the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington for Freedom and Jobs, when workers were asking for a minimum wage of $2 an hour, which would be $15.26 today when adjusted for inflation.

Mary Kay Henry, president of SEIU, said in a statement that it was imperative for the union to stand with fast-food workers.

“The fast-food workers are fighting for all of us,” said Henry. “SEIU members, like all service-sector workers, are worse off when large fast-food and retail companies are able to hold down wages and push down benefit standards for working people. That’s why SEIU members are proud to stand with fast-food and retail workers who are taking a stand for higher wages that will boost the economy for all of us.”

The fast-food workers movement for a wage of $15 an hour began in New York City when 200 workers went on strike last November with the other labor groups, community activists and clergymen at their side. In a couple of statements, fast-food workers from around the country acknowledged the role New York played in their actions.

“When I saw the strikes on TV earlier this summer in New York and Chicago, I said to my co-workers, ‘We need to bring this to Durham,’” said Willieta Dukes, 39, a Burger King worker in North Carolina. “And now we’ve brought the fight for $15 and a union not just to Durham, but to every corner of the country. The more of us who join together, the more powerful we are.”

“Today, our call for $15 an hour and a union was heard across the country,” said Devonte Yates, a Milwaukee-based McDonald’s worker. “If the fast-food industry doesn’t want our movement to spread any further, it should pay us enough so that we can support ourselves and our families.”

Fast food in America is a $200 billion-a-year industry in which most of the many service workers across the country earn minimum wage or just above it. Most have to rely on public assistance to feed their families. Even though low-wage workers are the fastest rising sector of work in the country, the national median wage for cooks, cashiers and crew at fast-food restaurants is $8.94 an hour.

Mayoral candidate and New York City Comptroller John Liu talked about the importance of fast-food workers continuing the fight.

“There was a time in America when most fast-food workers were high school kids living at home and trying to make some spending money,” said Liu in an emailed statement. “In this difficult economy, many adults now work in fast-food restaurants because that is the only job they can find. They are trying to support a family based upon their earnings alone. Paying them the minimum wage of $7.25 an hour or close to it is unconscionable.”