Fast-food workers held rallies in 236 U.S. cities Wednesday in their biggest protest yet for higher pay and union rights.
The events were organized by the union-backed Fight for $15 campaign, which is demanding that McDonald’s Corp. and other fast-food chains raise their minimum wages to $15 and let workers unionize. The rallies, which drew tens of thousands of workers, are the largest action to date for a movement begun in November 2012, organizers said.
About 1,000 workers protested outside a McDonald’s in Brooklyn, New York, while others rallied in cities such as Chicago, Miami and Washington, according to organizers. Fast-food employees also went on strike in New Zealand and protested in Finland and Japan, organizers said.
In Chicago, about 150 people protested outside a McDonald’s on the city’s South Side, said Deivid Rojas, a spokesman for Fight for $15 in Chicago. Protesters also were joined by about 40 striking truck drivers and security guards, he said.
McDonald’s said earlier this month it would raise wages and offer paid vacation at U.S. company-owned stores, which account for about 10 percent of its more than 14,000 domestic restaurants. The move came after a handful of major retail chains announced wage hikes amid a tightening labor market.
The restaurant chain’s critics weren’t mollified, saying the announcement was a public-relations stunt designed to fend off the growing protest movement. Instead, McDonald’s emboldened the protesters, said Mary Kay Henry, president of the Service Employees International Union, the labor group backing the rallies.
“It showed that if we come together, things can change,” Henry said in an interview. “There’s momentum behind working people joining together to improve their lives. That’s what this movement is about.”
In its pledge to improve wages and benefits, McDonald’s joined a growing list of major U.S. employers. In recent months, Wal-Mart Stores Inc., Target Corp. and TJX Cos. have all vowed to boost pay to at least $9 an hour this year. About 3.13 million workers prepare and serve food in the U.S., earning an average of $9.19 an hour, according to government data.
McDonald’s said it would raise pay at its company-owned stores by at least $1 above the local minimum wage. The Oak Brook, Illinois-based chain expects workers to earn more than $10 an hour, on average, by the end of 2016. McDonald’s said about 90,000 employees would get the raises. They won’t be given to the approximately 660,000 employees at U.S. restaurants run by franchisees.
The Fight for $15 movement began in 2012, when about 200 workers walked off the job in New York. The protests have since expanded beyond fast food to include workers from other low-wage industries, including child-care and home health workers. Adjunct professors and airport workers also were expected to join Wednesday’s rallies.
McDonald’s has said the protests are staged events and that participants have been paid to attend. McDonald’s also said many of the protesters don’t actually work at its restaurants.
“Our estimation from field reports is that approximately 10 to 15 actual McDonald’s workers have participated in each of these days,” said Heidi Barker, a company spokeswoman. McDonald’s doesn’t set wages in its franchised stores, which make up about 90 percent of its U.S. restaurants, she said.
The SEIU’s Henry said the company’s claim that workers are doing anything other than expressing their discontent with low wages “reflects a level of disrespect that McDonald’s has for its front-line workforce.”
“I’m insulted by McDonald’s suggesting these are somehow not their employees,” Henry said.