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Americas

US fast-food pay protests gain ground and spread abroad

© Photo: AFP

Text by FRANCE 24

Latest update : 2014-05-16

Labour organisers have turned up the pressure on McDonald’s, Burger King and other fast-food chains to raise worker pay, with strikes and protests spreading to some 150 US cities and more than 30 countries on Thursday.

The demonstrations and one-day strike are the latest action in a growing campaign by American unions to get the public behind the idea of a $15-an-hour wage, while aiming to convince thousands of restaurants that they make huge profits from paying workers a pittance and that their employees deserve a raise.

Organisers say workers went on strike in 150 US cities, including 20 at a restaurant in St. Louis that had to temporarily close as a result. But turnouts have varied and the scope of actions overseas also differed depending on the country.

Images on social media showed workers demonstrating in places including Dublin, Ireland, and Sao Paulo, Brazil.

Backed by the Service Employees International Union, the movement for higher wages began in New York City – where the cost of living is notoriously high – in late 2012 and has been steadily gaining ground with a series of protests, strikes, and legal battles.

In March, for instance, lawsuits filed in three states accused McDonald’s of denying breaks and engaging in other practices that deprive employees of their rightful pay. Workers were referred to lawyers by union organisers, who announced protests over “wage theft” the following week.

Fast-food workers have historically been considered difficult to unionise, since traditionally, posts were filled by young part-timers who didn’t stay in the job for long. But that is changing, with more people relying on such jobs to support families and build pensions.

Wider debate

The unrest comes amid a wider debate concerning low pay in the US, where Democrats are pushing to raise the federal minimum wage to $10.10 per hour from the current $7.25 ahead of this year's mid-term congressional polls.

In November US President Barack Obama threw his support behind the $10.10 minimum wage. But the proposed bill is strongly opposed by Republicans in Congress.

A fast-food worker at a protest in New York on Thursday. Photo: AFP.

“Corporations are able to make money – millions and billions of dollars. We should be able to make a decent salary so we can take care of our families,” said Sheila Brown, a mother of four who works at a KFC in New York City, where hundreds of demonstrators beat drums, blew whistles and chanted in the rain outside a Domino’s for about half an hour.

In Philadelphia, 19-year-old Justice Wallace, who earns $7.50 an hour, described her pay as “a poverty wage. We can’t live off of it,” she said.

In Chicago, Burger King employee Tammy Castellanos, 35, was among about 200 people who demonstrated in a cold rain outside a downtown McDonald's.

"I have done so much for Burger King and I don't make enough to pay the rent," said Castellanos, a single mother with five children ranging in age from 21 months to 18 years old. She said she makes $10 an hour after a decade working at the chain.

Customer support

Among the demonstrators in Miami was Selmira Wilson, who said through a translator that it was nearly impossible to care for her three children with the low wages she earned from McDonald's.

"I have to work two jobs," Wilson said. "I clean offices at night just to get by."

Marco Mejia, 66, a Chicago retiree who was eating breakfast at McDonald's, said he supported the workers.

"It's a shame," Mejia said. "The CEOs of these companies are making millions of dollars and do absolutely nothing, and these people are working so hard and make the minimum [wage]."

In response to the protests, McDonald’s said in a statement that the debate over wages needed to take into account “the highly competitive nature of the industries that employ minimum wage workers”.

The National Restaurant Association called the actions “nothing more than big labour’s attempt to push their own agenda”.

(FRANCE 24 with AP, REUTERS, AFP)

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Date created : 2014-05-16

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