A Day’s Strike Seeks to Raise Fast-Food Pay

What began in Manhattan eight months ago first spread to Chicago and Washington and this week has hit St. Louis, Kansas City, Detroit and Flint, Mich. On Wednesday alone, workers picketed McDonald’s, Taco Bell, Popeye’s and Long John Silver’s restaurants in those cities with an ambitious agenda: pay of $15 an hour, twice what many now earn.

These strikes, which are planned for Milwaukee on Thursday, carry the flavor of Occupy Wall Street protests and are far different from traditional unionization efforts that generally focus on a single workplace. The national campaign, underwritten with millions of dollars from the Service Employees International Union, aims to mobilize workers — all at once — in numerous cities at hundreds of restaurants from two dozen chains.

None of the nation’s 200,000-plus fast-food restaurants are unionized.

The strategists know they want to achieve a $15 wage, but they seem to be ad-libbing on ways to get there. Perhaps they will seek to unionize workers at dozens of restaurants, although some labor leaders scoff at that idea because the turnover rate among fast-food employees is about 75 percent a year. Or the strategists and strikers might press city councils to enact a special “living wage” for fast-food restaurants. Or perhaps by continually disrupting the fast-food marketplace from counter to counter across the country, they can get McDonald’s, KFC and others to raise wages to end the ruckus. The protests’ organizers acknowledge that yet another goal is to push Congress to raise the federal minimum wage and pressure state legislatures to raise the state minimums.

“These companies aren’t magically going to make our lives better,” said Terrance Wise, who earns $9.30 an hour after working for eight years at a Burger King in Kansas City, plus $7.40 an hour at his second job at Pizza Hut. “We can sit back and stay silent and continue to live in poverty or, on the other hand, we can step out and say something and let it be known that we need help.”

In explaining why her union is pouring dozens of organizers and significant sums into the effort, Mary Kay Henry, the S.E.I.U. president, said, “Our union’s members think that economic inequality is the No. 1 problem our nation needs to solve. We think it’s important to back low-wage workers who are willing to stand up and have the courage to strike to make the case that the economy is creating jobs that people can’t support their families on.”

The protests in Detroit on Wednesday had a particularly poignant backdrop, given that the city has declared bankruptcy. Dozens of workers, joined by members of various unions and community groups, picketed in front of McDonald’s and Taco Bell, shouting chants like, “Hey, hey, ho, ho, $7.40 has got to go” — the amount per hour many of them are paid.

“Fifteen dollars an hour would be great – we’d be able to pay our living costs,” said Christopher Drumgold, 32, a father of two who earns $7.40 an hour after a year working at a McDonald’s on Seven Mile Road in Detroit. “On what I’m earning right now you have to choose between paying your rent and eating the next day.”

Restaurant industry officials say the strikers’ demand for $15 an hour is ludicrous because it amounts to more than twice the federal minimum wage. (The median pay for fast-food workers nationwide is $9.05 an hour.) Industry officials say a $15 wage might drive many restaurants out of business and cause restaurant owners to hire fewer workers and replace some with automation — perhaps by using more computerized gadgets where customers punch in the orders themselves.

Scott DeFife, executive vice president of the National Restaurant Association, said the one-day walkouts were not really strikes, but rather public-relations-minded protests that have caused very few restaurants to close.

Jaclyn Trop contributed reporting.