Quick-service restaurant employees and supporters staged protests in 60 U.S. cities on Thursday, in what organizers characterized as the largest series of protests yet, stepping up pressure on national chains to pay higher wages and to give employees the ability to form unions.

Workers were expected to rally in cities including New York; Los Angeles; Boston; Chicago; Oakland, Calif.; St. Louis; Detroit; Seattle; Spokane, Wash.; Hartford, Conn.; Denver; Dallas; Lansing, Mich.; and Raleigh-Durham, N.C. Employees formed picket lines in front of restaurant brands including McDonald’s, Burger King, Wendy’s, Domino’s and KFC.

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The protesters are calling for employee wages of $15 per hour, which is more than double the current federal minimum wage of $7.25. They also demanded the right to unionize without interference or pressure from corporate or franchise management. These latest shows of force follow walk-outs in seven cities in July.

Restaurant industry association officials say the recent attempts by unions to find inroads into the foodservice industry are self-serving and will only hurt employees and the restaurant industry’s goal of job creation. The restaurant industry is one of the nation’s largest employers, with more than 13 million workers.

Kendall Fells, an organizer with Fast Food Forward, on the scene at the strike in New York.

“Mandating increased wages would lead to higher prices for consumers, lower foot traffic and sales for franchise owners, and, ultimately, lost jobs and opportunities for employees to become managers or franchise owners,” Steve Caldeira, president and chief executive of the International Franchise Association, said in a statement. “The franchise industry is a proven job creator and career builder, yet efforts to double the minimum wage to $15 would clearly jeopardize opportunities for existing and prospective employees.”

In New York, which marked its fourth such strike since November 2012, several hundred protesters gathered outside of McDonald’s and Wendy’s outlets on Fifth Avenue and 34th Street at 6:30 a.m., chanting slogans like, “We can’t survive on $7.25.”

Kendall Fells, an organizer with Fast Food Forward, an advocacy group that has been instrumental in shaping the New York protests over the past year, said he expected the day-long event would draw between 800 and 1,000 participants before it wound down at a late afternoon rally in Union Square.

Fells said the movement, which has generated national publicity over the past months, will continue to grow in size and scope as it gains further traction across the nation. “We will continue to pressure [restaurant operators] until we get a seat at the table,” he said. “We also expect to bring in more political allies and high profile people.”

Shaniqua Davis, a crew trainer at McDonald’s on 138th Street and Brook Avenue in New York who makes $7.75 an hour, said she was participating in the protests because, “the workers deserve more money. I have no problems with management, but overall, everyone works hard and deserves better wages.”

The median wage for restaurant workers is about $8.94 an hour, protest organizers have cited, which strikers say puts most employees below the poverty level.

In addition to calling for higher pay, Davis said she would like to see more benefits, like health care and life insurance.

Because of the restaurant industry’s high turnover rate and its large percentage of teenage workers, unions historically have been unsuccessful in their efforts to organize employees. Nevertheless, some observers say this could end as more unions — many of which have seen their membership decline over the years — accelerate their efforts to organize foodservice workers.

Restaurants, industry members respond

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Officials of industry trade associations and restaurant chains continue to push back against the protesters demands.

“Today’s effort by a number of union front groups is yet more theater orchestrated by organized labor, for organized labor,” said Bill Thorne, senior vice president of the National Retail Federation, the parent of the National Council of Chain Restaurants. “The law is clear: if employees want to unionize, they can. But they are not, so unions are paying high-priced public relations firms and work centers to conduct disruptive labor activities, which would be otherwise prohibited if organized by unions themselves.

“Today’s publicity stunt is just further proof that the labor movement is not only facing depleted membership rolls, they simply have no role in an honest and rational discussion about the American workforce,” he said.

Oak Brook, Ill.-based McDonald’s Corp. responded to the strikes with a statement saying, “The story promoted by the individuals organizing these events does not provide an accurate picture of what it means to work at McDonald's.We respect the strong relationship which exists among McDonald's, our independent operators, and the employees who work in McDonald's restaurants.”

Demonstrators gather outside the McDonald's on Fifth Avenue and 34th Street in New York.

The statement went on to say that McDonald's offers competitive pay and benefits to employees while providing training and professional development for employees who wish to take advantage of those opportunities.“Our history is full of examples of individuals who worked their first job with McDonald's and went on to successful careers both within and outside of McDonald's.”

The National Restaurant Association sounded a similar note. Scott DeFife, executive vice president of Policy and Government Affairs for the NRA, said the industry “provides opportunity to over 13 million Americans with jobs that meet critical needs within our economy. We welcome a national discussion on wages, but it should be based on facts…The fact is only 5 percent of restaurant employees earn the minimum wage and those that do are predominantly working part-time and half are teenagers.”

Contact Paul Frumkin at paul.frumkin@penton.com.
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