Fast-Food Chains Under Fire For Low Wages Stay Out of Fray

Industry Largely Quiet As Worker Strikes Spread By Social Media Hit 60 Cities

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Fast-food workers in 60 cities launched strikes Thursday to fight for a $15 wage just ahead of Labor Day -- an event that's part of a movement grown largely through social media and without the help of much advertising. But while those advocating a higher wage get plenty of press, fast-food chains aren't doing much beyond issuing a statement.

The retail and fast-food protests started last November in New York with a one-day strike by 200 workers organized by Fast Food Forward, a group of labor, community and clergy organizers. The protests have gradually expanded to other cities, with strikes taking place in seven additional cities, including Chicago, this spring and summer. The names of the groups in various cities differ somewhat, going by names like Fast Food Forward in New York, to Fight for 15 in Chicago, to Raise Up in Milwaukee.

The protests have garnered significant PR since they began in New York, but organizers have put little effort into paid media. Fast Food Forward recently took out Facebook ads in select cities promoting the cause, but no other paid media, such as a newspaper ad, has resulted. Fast Food Forward also launched the @LowPayIsNotOk Twitter handle and Facebook pages.

'Viral' movement
The Service Employees International Union, a labor union that works on behalf of fast-food and other retail workers, state and local government employees, as well as hospital employees, has been advising the strikers, providing financial and technical support and is lending staff to help train organizers in each of the cities.

Kendall Fells, director of Fast Food Forward and an SEIU employee, said in a statement to Ad Age that the strikes have spread to the cities largely because of social media. "Workers from all across the country have been contacting the campaigns and looking online, hungry for information about what is happening and asking for ways to get involved….The workers have created a viral movement that is self-replicating. It can only continue to grow."

The purpose of the strikes is to gather enough support for fast-food employees to organize a union and demand a $15-an-hour minimum wage from their employers, as opposed to an attempt to instate a federally mandated $15-an-hour minimum wage. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, fast-food cooks and counter workers make an average of $9 per hour now. The current federal minimum wage is $7.25 per hour.

Journal ad
Sen. Tom Harkin (D.-Iowa) and Rep. George Miller (D.-Calif.) earlier this year introduced legislation to raise the federal minimum wage to $10.10 per hour, and President Obama has said this year that he wants the minimum wage to be raised to $9. The minimum wage hasn't been raised since 2009.

Fast-food marketers have yet to launch any sort of offensive on the matter, but one group, the Employment Policies Institute, has taken to newspapers to argue that increasing pay will cut jobs. The EPI, founded in 1991 by PR exec and lobbyist Richard Berman, who has lobbied on behalf of the hotel, restaurant, alcohol and tobacco industries, took out an ad in Thursday's Wall Street Journal, and one in USA Today on July 26, when a previous strike took place.

The EPI ad in Thursday's Journal reads: "Today's union-organized protests against fast-food restaurants aren't a battle against management -- they're a battle against technology. Faced with a $15 wage mandate, restaurants have to reduce the cost of service in order to maintain the low prices consumers demand. That means fewer entry-level jobs and more automated alternatives -- even in the kitchen." The ad is accompanied by an image of a robot handling food.

Asked why it took out an ad about the strikes, EPI Research Director Michael Saltsman said, "Our point is that you can't have it both ways-- you can't have the same number of opportunities in the industry and a $15 minimum wage."

National Hiring Day
The protest, even with a good turnout, likely won't have a big impact on fast-food chains' sales ultimately. But as of late Thursday afternoon the strikes did result in closings of at least 17 locations of Wendy's McDonald's, Taco Bell and other chains in various cities.

Fast-food companies have remained mum on the issue from the start, though Burger King and McDonald's issued statement in response to Thursday's protests. Burger King's statement said: "For decades, Burger King restaurants have provided an entry point into the workforce for millions of Americans, including many of the system's franchisees who began their careers working at local Burger King restaurants…..Burger King Corp. and its franchisees support and invest in the thousands of restaurant team members across the system. Burger King restaurants offer compensation and benefits that are consistent with the QSR industry."

McDonald's issued the following statement: "The story promoted by the individuals organizing these events does not provide an accurate picture of what it means to work at McDonald's....McDonald's aims to offer competitive pay and benefits to our employees. We provide training and professional development for all of those who wish to take advantage of those opportunities....We respect our employees' rights to voice their opinions. Employees who participate in these activities and return to work are welcomed back and scheduled to work their regular shifts as usual."

That McDonald's has kept quiet on the issue save for a statement is somewhat surprising, considering the chain in 2011 had a National Hiring Day, the aim of which was to recast McJob -- a derogatory slang for a low-paying, dead-end job -- into a desirable employment opportunity.

Restaurant response
In light of the minimum-wage protests, McDonald's in July was criticized for a budget website it launched with Visa to help employees set budgets. Critics said that the sample budget illustrates just how hard it is for low-wage workers to get by.

The restaurant industry on the whole is against the strikes' mission. "The restaurant industry provides opportunity to over 13 million Americans with jobs that meet critical needs within our economy," said Scott DeFife, exec VP-policy and government affairs at the National Restaurant Association, the industry's largest lobbyist. "We welcome a national discussion on wages, but it should be based on facts….Nine out of ten salaried restaurant workers, including owners and managers, started as hourly workers."

Mr. DeFife also said that "only 5% of restaurant employees earn the minimum wage and those that do are predominantly working part-time and half are teenagers." Such jobs traditionally had been taken by younger people, but a sluggish economy after a prolonged economic downturn has put older people into that work force. According to an NPR report from Thursday citing government figures, the average age of a restaurant worker is now 29.

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