Workplace

Fast-food workers in KC join national protest over ‘poverty wages’

Updated: 2013-07-30T01:25:14Z

By DIANE STAFFORD

The Kansas City Star

Fast-food workers served up a show of force Monday, rallying for higher wages in several major cities, including Kansas City.

Their message: Fast-food workers don’t make enough money to live on, particularly if they have families.

The activism, spurred by experienced labor organizers and coordinated across cities for the first time, put patrons of Burger King, McDonald’s, Wendy’s and other restaurant chains on notice that the industry pays poverty-level wages to many of its entry-level workers.

“We’re building a movement of fast-food workers in a way that has never really existed in the fast-food industry,” said Jonathan Westin, an organizer for New York Communities for Change.

The rallies dovetailed with a new National Employment Law Project report, “Going Nowhere Fast,” which said non-managerial positions in the fast-food industry are among the lowest-paying in the nation, with a median wage of $8.94 an hour. That would amount to an annual full-time wage of about $18,500.

In Kansas City, about 160 people chanted, “Hey, hey. Ho, ho. Poverty wages got to go,” on a short, noisy march on Emanuel Cleaver II Boulevard that ended in the parking lot of a Burger King on the corner of Troost Avenue.

Most of the crowd wore red T-shirts reading “Stand up KC” and “We are worth more.” Many of the Kansas City fast-food workers carried signs that read “On strike. No retaliation.”

Some who attended said it wasn’t an official strike — because they were not union members — but it was a day of individual protest for wages that haven’t kept pace with inflation.

“I make $8 an hour and just get about 30 hours every two weeks,” said Lakiisha Dukes, who said she did not intend to report for work Monday afternoon at the Burger King where the rally was held.

Dukes said she was standing in the drizzle in the parking lot because she wanted “more respectful managers, more workers — we’re understaffed all the time — and pay of at least $12 an hour.”

The media office for Burger King said no one was available to respond to questions about the rally. In an emailed statement to some media, the company said its franchised restaurants “offer compensation and benefits that are consistent with the QSR industry.” QSR stands for “quick-service restaurant.”

Only manager-level employees were on duty at the Burger King during the rally. Organizers of the rally said hourly employees at that restaurant took the day off.

Speaking at a podium set up on the Troost sidewalk, Terrance Wise, who works two part-time jobs at a Burger King and Pizza Hut, said the rally was organized because “these billion-dollar companies aren’t magically going to make our lives better overnight.”

Nationally, protest organizers are calling for pay of $15 an hour, which would be more than double the current federal minimum of $7.25 an hour. (The base rate is $7.35 an hour in Missouri because of an automatic inflation escalator built into state law.)

U.S. Rep. Emanuel Cleaver, who spoke at the Kansas City rally, said it was unlikely that the current Congress will vote to raise the minimum wage, but he believes the issue will influence voters’ decisions in the next midterm elections.

“That will be the beginning of change,” said Cleaver, a Democrat. “I do think in the next Congress” there will be movement to raise the minimum, he said.

Congress last voted to raise the federal minimum wage in 2007. Its last increase occurred in 2009. President Barack Obama last week urged an increase to $9 an hour, but Congress has not acted on the request.

In remarks to the crowd, Cleaver noted that the current minimum wage has the same buying power it did in 1968, and that it has risen only $7 an hour since his father earned the minimum of 25 cents in 1938.

The local wage campaign is being led by the Workers Organizing Committee of Kansas City, which is focused on the fast-food and retail industries.

Organizers said participants in the rally work at McDonald’s, Wendy’s, Burger King and Pizza Hut restaurants and at Dollar General and Family Dollar stores.

About a dozen area organizations support the Kansas City coalition. Many had representatives at the rally. They include the NAACP, Jobs With Justice, Communities Creating Opportunity, locals affiliated with the AFL-CIO and other unions, the Cross Border Network, and the Midwest Center for Equality and Democracy.

Around the country, protests were held in New York, Chicago, St. Louis, Detroit, Milwaukee and Flint, Mich.

In St. Louis, Martin Rafanan, a community director for STL735, the group that organized the protest, said, “These workers need a raise and they need representation in the workplace.”

The STL735 name stands for “St. Louis Can’t Survive on $7.35,” referring to Missouri’s minimum wage. Rafanan said the St. Louis group also plans for people to walk off the job Tuesday.

In New York City, more than 500 workers were expected to leave their fast-food jobs for the day, said Jonathan Westin, the director of Fast Food Forward and the executive director of New York Communities for Change.

Chanting a phrase similar to that heard in Missouri, New York workers stood in front of a McDonald’s restaurant across the street from Yankee Stadium and yelled, “We can’t survive on $7.25.”

The conservative Employment Policies Institute responded to Monday’s planned rallies by taking out a full-page advertisement in USA Today. It said:

“Today, union-supported activist groups are staging walk-outs at restaurants in seven major cities, demanding a $15 hourly wage. This would have negative consequences for employees. Restaurants keep just a few cents in profit from each sales dollar, and won’t be able to afford current staffing levels when faced with a $15 minimum wage. Instead, they will be forced to replace employees with less-costly, automated alternatives like touch-screen ordering and payment devices.”

The ad pinpointed out the long-standing argument against raising the minimum wage, but independent research studies are inconclusive about whether higher minimums cause job loss.

The national events built on momentum begun in April when employees from McDonald’s and YumBrands Inc., which owns the KFC and Taco Bell chains, joined workers from Macy’s Inc. and L Brands Inc.’s Victoria’s Secret chain in walking off the job in Chicago and New York. Workers in various Wal-Mart stores also have walked off the job.

Workers from Domino’s Pizza Inc. and Subway restaurants were said to be participating in walkouts this week.

McDonald’s Chief Executive Officer Don Thompson said in an interview last week on Bloomberg TV that McDonald’s is an “above minimum-wage employer” and an enduring provider of entry-level jobs.

The Economic Policy Institute, which advocates for low-wage workers, reported recently that chief executives at the nation’s top restaurant companies earn more in one morning than the average minimum-wage worker in their restaurant earns in a year.

A minimum wage worker who works 40 hours a week would earn about $15,000 in a year. Rally speakers said that many hours often aren’t available, and many of the jobs don’t include employee benefits such as health care or paid time off.

The leisure and hospitality industry, which includes restaurants, has been adding jobs faster than any other sector. In June, the industry added 75,000 jobs, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

The Star’s news services contributed to this report. To reach Diane Stafford, call 816-234-4359 or send email to stafford@kcstar.com.

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