The Law @ Work

Low Wage Workers in Major US Cities Stage Walkouts in Demand for Higher Wages and Unionization

There is a movement afoot.  Fast food and retail workers are staging coordinated walkouts or staying away from their regular shifts in a growing list of major U.S. cities.  Employees of national restaurant and retail chains, including McDonald’s, Wendy’s, Burger King, Hardees, Domino’s, Jack in the Box, Taco Bell, Foot Action, Dollar Tree, and Simply Fashion, are calling for fair wages and the right to form a union free from retaliation.  The employees are supported by local elected officials, clergy and the faith community, local unions, students, and other community leaders.

Since early April, organized walkouts and rallies have occurred in New York, Detroit, Chicago, St Louis, and Milwaukee (presently the only city in which retail workers participated).  And more are expected.  Workers participating in the work actions presented formal letters to management where they are employed, informing them of the one-day walkout and that they intended to return the following day to their regularly scheduled shifts.  Organizers in each city estimated “hundreds” of workers had participated, but many expected even more to join the effort as workers who participated were urged to persuade coworkers to take up the cause.

Until recently, there had been no sustained or overly successful large-scale efforts to unionize fast food workers because of the high turnover in the industry and the number of teens and young adults taking up such jobs as part-time or summer workers.  The recession, however, ushered in a change in the industry leading to a large population of adult fast food workers.

The workers and their supporters are seeking $15 per hour and the right to unionize.  Most fast food and retail workers participating in these efforts are earning minimum wage.  As a result, organizers claim, workers are forced to take on second or third jobs and often require public assistance to provide for their families.

In response to the organized efforts of its workers, McDonald’s issued the following statement: “[McDonald’s] employees are paid competitive wages and have access to a range of benefits to meet their individual needs.  In addition, employees who want to go from crew to management can take advantage of a variety of training and professional development opportunities.”  Similarly, a Burger King statement pointed out that “employees and their families are eligible for college scholarships to encourage further growth and education.”

Scott DeFife, Executive VP of Policy and Government Affairs with the National Restaurant Association, expressed concern about the industry’s ability to create jobs if forced to pay higher wages.  DeFife claimed that the additional labor cost that would come with the implementation of current proposals aimed at increasing the minimum wage would negatively impact a restaurant’s ability to hire and maintain jobs, particularly when combined with the cost of complying with new regulations, such as the Affordable Care Act.

The organized efforts of the workers and communities in New York, Detroit, Chicago, St. Louis, and Milwaukee will likely gather even more attention as the movement makes its way west.

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