Fast-food workers uniting to strike on Aug. 29

Among their demands is a $15 per hour minimum wage. Retail workers will also likely join in.

By Jonathan Berr Aug 20, 2013 4:08PM
An employee pours a soft drink at a Wendy's on April 5, 2013 (© Andrey Rudakov/Bloomberg via Getty Images)McDonald's (MCD), Burger King (BKW),  Wendy's (WEN) and their rivals can sell food inexpensively because they pay their workers low wages. That unpleasant economic reality will confront diners in eight cities later this month during a work stoppage organized by a coalition of unions and community groups.

The strike, organized to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the historic March on Washington for civil rights and Labor Day, is designed to raise awareness of the plight of workers in fast food and other low-wage industries such as retail. It's scheduled for Aug. 29. Among the workers' demands are a $15 per hour minimum wage and the right to form a union.

Historically, fast-food workers have been teenagers, but that's no longer the case. The average age for these employees tops 28. Many of them have families and are forced to work two jobs to make ends meet.

"Fast food is a $200 billion a year industry and retail is a $4.7 trillion industry, yet many service workers across the country earn minimum wage or just above it and are forced to rely on public assistance programs to provide for their families and get health care for their children," according to the AFL-CIO's website.

The National Restaurant Association, which says it welcomes a debate on fair wages, argues in a statement to MSN moneyNOW that protestors are unfairly signaling out its industry.

"In fact, only 5 percent of restaurant employees earn the minimum wage and those who do are predominantly teenagers who are working part-time jobs," says Angelo Amador, the association's vice president of Labor & Workforce Policy, echoing criticisms made by others such as the conservative Heritage Foundation.

Supporters of raising the minimum wage dispute this characterization. According to the liberal Economic Policy Research Institute, 80% of the workers who benefited from a hike in the wage in eight states last year were at least 20 years old.

Willietta Dukes, 39, of Durham, N.C., a mother of two, told The Washington Post she plans to walk off her job at Burger King on Aug. 29. Her highest salary after working for 15 years in the industry is $8.65 per hour. Rarely is she scheduled for a 40-hour week.

"I am good at what I do," she told the paper. "Yet after working all day, I do not earn enough to even pay for the basics. I don't want to be in poverty forever."

As MSN moneyNOW's Aimee Picchi noted on Tuesday, strategists at trading firm ConvergEx  estimate it takes U.S. low-wage workers 34 minutes to earn enough to buy a Big Mac, about the middle of the pack of the countries they studied. Interestingly, McDonald's workers in Australia need to work for only 18 minutes to afford the burger because the minimum wage there is $A15 per hour ($13.64).

Employees at retail chains such as Macy's (M), Dollar Tree (DLTR) and Sears (SHLD) are also expected to participate in the job action, which is being organized through social media, according to The Post. 

President Obama has called for the minimum wage to be raised to $9 per hour from $7.25, which is slightly ahead of the $8.69 per hour median wage paid fast food employees. Industry groups have argued they can't afford to pay $15 an hour and sustain their businesses.

Whether the coming job action will lead to higher wages is hard to say. But the organizers have scored one success already: People are now at least thinking about the cold economic facts behind their cheap, hot meals.

Jonathan Berr does not own shares of the listed stocks. Follow him on Twitter @jdberr.

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