Fast food workers and their supporters staged walkouts and rallies across the country to protest low wages in the multibillion-dollar industry on Thursday. Frontline workers from McDonald’s, Burger King, Wendy’s, KFC, Taco Bell and others walked off the job in more than 100 cities and rallies were staged in 100 more. Thursday’s protests — which came a day after President Barack Obama said income inequality would be the “defining challenge” of his second term — were the largest against the fast food industry since they began at 20 restaurants in New York City in November 2012.
“We are a better country than this,” Obama said Wednesday, calling on Congress to raise the minimum wage from $7.25. “The basic bargain at the heart of our economy has frayed.”
In New York’s Foley Square, near City Hall and across the street from a federal court house, hundreds of workers rallied in support of low-wage employees in the fast food industry. Those workers were joined by union members from the United Federation of Teachers, the Hotel Trades Council, the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union, Communication Workers of America and the Teamsters Airline Division
According to a study released this week by the Institute for Policy Studies:
- During the past two years, the CEOs of the top six publicly held fast food chains pocketed more than $183 million in fully deductible “performance pay,” lowering their companies’ IRS bills by an estimated $64 million.
- YUM! Brands enjoyed the biggest taxpayer subsidy for its CEO pay largesse. This firm, which owns Taco Bell, KFC, and Pizza Hut, paid CEO David Novak $94 million in fully deductible “performance pay” over the years 2011 and 2012. That works out to a $33 million taxpayer subsidy to YUM! – just for one executive’s pay.
- McDonald’s received the second-largest government handout. As CEO in 2011 and the first half of 2012, James Skinner pocketed $31 million in exercised stock options and other fully deductible “performance pay.”
- Incoming McDonald’s CEO Donald Thompson took in $10 million in performance pay in his first six months on the job. Skinner and Thompson’s combined performance pay translates into a $14 million taxpayer subsidy for McDonald’s.
“It’s very difficult to live off $8.07 an hour,” Simon Rojas, 23, who works at a McDonald’s in South Central Los Angeles told The New York Times noting that he is often assigned just 20 or 25 hours of work a week. “I have to live with my parents. I would like to be able to afford a car and an apartment.”
“If you look back at America 30 years ago, most of your minimum wage workers were teenagers, or they were women who didn’t have to work but actually had some spare time,” Robert Reich, former Secretary of Labor under President Bill Clinton, told CBS Sunday Morning. “Today, your typical low-wage or even minimum-wage worker is an adult over 25 years old. Twenty-five percent of those low-wage workers have children.”
Mary Coleman, known to her co-workers as Ms. Mary, works at a Popeye’s in Milwaukee for $7.25 an hour. Coleman, 59, lives with her daughter, who has a heart condition, and her two grandchildren. She also relies on food stamps to make ends meet and says she would gladly trade in her Qwest card for higher wages. Thursday marks Mary’s fourth strike. Previously, she walked off the job on May 15, August 1 and August 29.
“I’m tired of working for $7.25,” Coleman says. “I can’t take care of my household, I can’t even take care of myself.”
According to a study released in October by researchers at the University of California Berkeley Labor Center and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign:
- More than half (52 percent) of the families of front-line fast-food workers are enrolled in one or more public programs, compared to 25 percent of the workforce as a whole.
- The cost of public assistance to families of workers in the fast-food industry is nearly $7 billion per year.
- At an average of $3.9 billion per year, spending on Medicaid and the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP) accounts for more than half of these costs.
- Due to low earnings, fast-food workers’ families also receive an annual average of $1.04 billion in food stamp benefits and $1.91 billion in Earned Income Tax Credit payments.
- People working in fast-food jobs are more likely to live in or near poverty. One in five families with a member holding a fast-food job has an income below the poverty line, and 43 percent have an income two times the federal poverty level or less.
- Even full-time hours are not enough to compensate for low wages. The families of more than half of the fast-food workers employed 40 or more hours per week are enrolled in public assistance programs.