Fast food workers and restaurant employees in 150 American cities walked off the job on Thursday as part of an organized global movement to protest what they consider to be the imbalance between employee salaries and restaurant profits.
Participants in the grassroots campaign said they’re seeking a minimum wage hike of at least $15 an hour and the right to unionize without the fear of retaliation by their employers. They say the current minimum wage, in most places around $8 an hour, is not enough to make rent, buy food and pay utility bills.
“You have a hard time paying the bills,” restaurant employee Shannon Workman told the Sacramento Bee. “I’m in a lot of debt right now and I’m only 21.”
In Sacramento, about 100 people gathered in front of a McDonald’s restaurant demanding higher wages and the right to unionize. Some of the participants weren’t fast food employees, but rather concerned citizens who showed up to offer their support for those making considerably less.
“I work for state parks,” Twila Hunter told KCRA-TV. “I’m just here for support.”
But not everyone is supportive of the effort to give fast food workers more cash. Some see working at a restaurant like McDonald’s as a temporary job that shouldn’t turn in to a career and question whether working in the service industry is worth $15 an hour.
“Greed is what it is,” Sacramento resident Daniel P. Vallejos Jr. said on a local TV station’s Facebook page. “You should not make $15 an hour at a fast food restaurant, unless you are a manager.”
“You have got to be kidding me!” wrote Kari Mescher-Woodruff. “If you want $15 per hour, go educate yourself and start a career!”
But for people like Shawndraka Mack, working a low-wage fast food job is one of the few — if not the only — career opportunities available.
When Bloomberg Businessweek profiled Mack last year, she was raising two children with her fiancé in a mobile home an hour’s drive from her job at McDonald’s in Charleston, S.C. Mack, who works 40 hours a week at $7.80 an hour, makes just enough money to cover her electric, phone and car insurance bills — but she doesn’t make enough to eat at McDonald’s.
“I work at McDonald’s and I can’t afford to eat there,” she said. Instead, she brings her lunch made from food that is paid for using just under $350 a month in food stamps. She goes once a month to the grocery store, and whatever she buys has to last her until the following month.
Mack’s story isn’t an isolated one: A study released in October 2013 found that fast food workers employed at chains across America claimed $7 billion annually in welfare between 2007 and 2011. By comparison, McDonald’s revenue was more than triple that figure — $27.56 billion — in 2012 alone.
But McDonald’s asserts it isn’t the bad guy here. The company says raising employee salaries will mean increased food prices and job losses. That, the company says, would be unfriendly to consumers and small business owners that operate McDonald’s franchises around the world.
So in lieu of giving workers more money, the company launched a resource line (branded “McResources”) that offers advice to employees who are struggling to make ends meet (its advice to one woman: Go on food stamps). And instead of comprehensive health benefits, minimum wage workers are also offered training on how to stay healthy by eating nutrient-rich food (which its own material says doesn’t include McDonald’s burgers or fries).
That advice does little for McDonald’s employee Selmira Wilson, who told Reuters on Thursday that it’s nearly impossible for her to take care of herself and her three children on the money she makes working in the fast food industry.
“I have to work two jobs,” Wilson said. “I clean offices at night just to get by.”
Matthew Keys is a contributing journalist for TheBlot Magazine.