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Fast-Food Workers Make Good on National Walkout Threat

NEW YORK – Fast-food employee protests took place in 60 U.S. cities today, including New York, Chicago, Atlanta, Boston, Detroit, Las Vegas and Los Angeles, making good on the call issued last week for a national walkout. Organizers expected the biggest national strike day yet as workers demand higher wages. It isn't clear yet, though, what affect these protests had on business, according to media reports.

This morning, New York City Council Speaker Christine Quinn joined 300 to 400 protesting workers and their supporters in a march to and inside a McDonald's restaurant near the Empire State Building. Following the demonstration, the restaurant operated normally, as did another McDonald's location several blocks away, with some customers saying they hadn't heard of the protest movement. This lack of awareness is one of several challenges for the striking fast-food employees who are seeking a wage of $15 per hour and the right to unionize without interference or pressure.

The New York City protest was slated to conclude at a late afternoon rally in Union Square. Eight hundred to 1,000 participants were expected to take part throughout the daylong event, according to Kendall Fells, an organizer for advocacy group Fast Food Forward.

"For all too many people working minimum-wage jobs, the rungs on the ladder of opportunity are feeling further and further apart," Labor Secretary Thomas Perez told the Associated Press. He compared today’s protests to the demands of the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, which included a national minimum wage to provide higher living standards. Yesterday was the 50th anniversary of that march, which featured Martin Luther King Jr.'s iconic "I Have a Dream" speech.

The current federal minimum wage is $7.25 per hour, or approximately $15,000 a year for a full-time employee.

Protest organizers had projected that today’s national walkout would hit more than 50 cities. Prior to today, the movement's biggest effort came in July when approximately 2,200 fast-food workers staged a one-day strike in seven cities. The Service Employees International Union has provided financial support and training for local protest organizers around the United States.

McDonald's Corp. and Burger King Worldwide Inc. both said they don't make payroll decisions for the independent franchisees that make up the majority of their U.S. restaurants.

In a statement, McDonald’s said: “The story promoted by the individuals organizing these events does not provide an accurate picture of what it means to work at McDonald's. We respect the strong relationship which exists among McDonald's, our independent operators and the employees who work in McDonald's restaurants.” The company noted that at the locations it does own, pay starts at minimum wage and ranges upward based on position and experience level. Raising the entry-level wage would increase overall costs and lead to higher menu prices, according to McDonald’s.

A few retail organizations expressed disapproval over today’s strike.

"Today's effort by a number of union front groups is yet more theater orchestrated by organized labor for organized labor,” stated Bill Thorne, senior vice president of the National Retail Federation (NRF). “The law is clear: if employees want to unionize, they can. But they are not, so unions are paying high-priced public relations firms and work centers to conduct disruptive labor activities, which would be otherwise prohibited if organized by unions themselves."

It would be detrimental for businesses to spend money to recruit, train and then penalize employees, Thorne continued, adding that retailers and restaurants pay competitive wages and other additional benefits, and that many managers at these companies started out as part-time or hourly employees.

"Today's publicity stunt is just further proof that the labor movement is not only facing depleted membership rolls, they have abdicated their role in an honest and rational discussion about the American workforce," he concluded.

The International Franchise Association also spoke out against the protest.

“Mandating increased wages would lead to higher prices for consumers, lower foot traffic and sales for franchise owners, and ultimately lost jobs and opportunities for employees to become managers or franchise owners,” President and CEO Steve Caldeira said in a statement. “The franchise industry is a proven job creator and career builder, yet efforts to double the minimum wage to $15 would clearly jeopardize opportunities for existing and prospective employees.”

Along with its workers, the restaurant industry itself has struggled as customers remain cost-conscious and accustomed to eating at home since the recession began, according to research from The NPD Group. Restaurant visits are expected to grow less than 1 percent annually over the next 10 years. The fast-food segment, which comprises 78 percent of total industry traffic, is expected to do better than other segments.

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