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New York fast-food workers turn up heat on pay demands

by
A McDonald's staff member serves soft drinks at their fast food restaurant in downtown Milan October 16, 2012. REUTERS/Stefano Rellandini
A McDonald's staff member serves soft drinks at their fast food restaurant in downtown Milan October 16, 2012. REUTERS/Stefano Rellandini

By Lisa Baertlein

(Reuters) - Hundreds of fast-food restaurant workers in New York City turned out for protests on Thursday in what organizers said would be their largest rally yet for better pay.

Employees from familiar chains such as McDonald's Corp, Burger King and Yum Inc's KFC are seeking to roughly double their hourly wage to $15. They also say they want the right to form a union without interference.

Winning such concessions will be an uphill battle. Low-wage, low-skill workers lack political clout and face significantly higher unemployment than college graduates.

"It's a long fight. We have to stick together if we're going to have a chance," said Joseph Barrera, 22, who has worked at a Brooklyn KFC restaurant for the past 10 months.

Organizers estimated that there are 50,000 fast-food workers in New York City who earn $10,000 to $18,000 per year

Events kicked off at a McDonald's in midtown Manhattan, where roughly 100 people - including supporters bused in from Washington, DC - rallied. Roughly the same number of protesters clogged the entrance of a Wendy's restaurant near Penn Station at noon.

As many as 400 workers from more than five dozen restaurants around New York City have committed to turn out for protests planned at various locations throughout the day, said Jonathan Westin, director of Fast Food Forward, which organized Thursday's actions and is backed by labor, community and religious groups.

That turnout would be twice as large as in November, when the city's fast-food workers also walked off the job, Westin said.

"It's going to be difficult for these businesses to operate this time," said Westin.

That claim was in dispute, though. Protesters said their walk-out prevented a Burger King restaurant in Brooklyn from opening, but the company said it was only delayed 15 minutes.

FLIPPING AND FRYING

The nearly $200 billion U.S. fast-food industry long has been known as an employer of teenagers and students.

But the 18-month "Great Recession" that began in December 2007 forced more adults to seek part-time, largely minimum wage work flipping burgers and manning fryers.

Burger King and McDonald's said in statements to Reuters that most restaurants in their chains are independently owned and operated, and offer compensation consistent with industry standards.

U.S. President Barack Obama proposed raising the federal minimum wage in his State of the Union address as a way to help lift some workers out of poverty. Critics, including the restaurant industry, say such a move would kill jobs by burdening small businesses with higher costs.

The state of New York recently passed a budget that includes plans to raise the state minimum wage to $9 an hour by the end of 2015.

But even with that hike, New York's minimum wage would remain below the roughly $11 hourly pay needed to lift a family of four above the poverty line.

"Anywhere where the cost of living is very, very high, $9 is not enough. Everyone should be able to make a living wage," said Barrera, who is paid the current minimum wage of $7.25 an hour.

(Additional reporting by Lucas Jackson and Phil Wahba in New York; Editing by Lisa Shumaker and Leslie Gevirtz)

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