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Fast-food protests take aim at improving workers’ wages

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Published:   |   Updated: August 30, 2013 at 07:44 AM

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Dustin Ponder marched into a Wendy’s restaurant in Tampa with a megaphone and about 50 people behind him, and implored workers behind the cash register to philosophically, if not physically, join their cause.

“You have tons of union workers and supporters from all over this state behind your back,” he said, as others handed out fliers about the drive for raising wages to at least $15 an hour. “You deserve more.”

The half-dozen workers stayed at their posts, but many took the fliers, as the protest moved west down Fowler Avenue, making similar marches past the Checkers, into the Taco Bell, and in front of the Long John Silvers.

That protest was among about 60 others nationwide scheduled Thursday, timed to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the civil rights March on Washington, each one taking a relatively new approach to organizing workers.

Rather than focus mainly on signing up factory or hotel workers for union membership, as unions did in past decades, this genre of protest targeted typically unorganized fast-food workers with campaigns broadly meant to raise awareness among the wider population, amplified by a wave of posts on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram to reach a different kind of audience.

While often portrayed as a first-time job, labor organizers argue that fast-food work often becomes the only job that many people can find in a stagnant economy, and people find they’re stuck at a low position with little chance to advance. That leaves workers to take two or three part time jobs at different companies, because no employer will take them on at full time or pay them health benefits.

On the other side of the argument, anti-union advocates say that paying workers the $15 hourly wage that unions are asking for would only lead to two things: restaurants raising prices on consumers to cover those higher wages and restaurants laying off workers to maintain any hope of breaking even or being profitable.

As to whether fast-food chains can afford to pay workers more, there’s evidence for either side to chose.

On one hand, the research firm Sageworks found fast-food restaurants enjoy a relatively strong profit margin of 4.6 percent, and sales rose 12.9 percent over the past 12 months. Stock in McDonald’s, KFC, Taco Bell parent Yum Brands Inc. and Burger King all rose between 9 percent and 19 percent over the past year. Wendy’s is enjoying a remarkable turnaround, and has seen its stock soar more than 63 percent.

On the other hand, customer foot traffic is not increasing, according to the research group NPD. The rush of customers who downsized to fast food during the downturn has slowed down. Ingredient costs are rising, and McDonald’s recently reported disappointing earnings and chief executive Donald Thompson warned that results would be mixed for the rest of the year.

Wendy’s customer Nate Brower worked 34 years in aluminum factories, and often served as a union official for co-workers. He hadn’t heard of the protests but generally supported them.

“I don’t know if $15 would work or not,” he said. “But I do think they deserve more.”

Official response to the strikes among restaurant and retail companies varied in tone.

“We respect the strong relationship which exists among McDonald’s, our independent operators and the employees who work in McDonald’s restaurants,” McDonald’s officials said in a statement. “Our restaurants remain open, with our dedicated employees providing strong service to our customers. 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.

National Retail Federation senior vice president Bill Thorne struck a different note.

“Retail and restaurant jobs are good jobs, held by millions of working men and women, who are proud of what they do for their customers and the communities they serve across America,” he wrote. “The planned walkout is the result of a multiyear effort by big labor to diminish and disparage these hard-working Americans by attacking the companies they work for. ... 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.”

One especially interesting aspect of this wave of worker action is how different the approach is from decades ago, when unions focused primarily on signing workers as members to build up a more powerful bargaining position, said Steve Bernstein, a partner in the Tampa office of Fisher & Phillips who represents management in labor issues.

“We know that these efforts are to a large extent backed by large unions,” he said. “But they come at a time when unions seem to be grasping for new strategies.”

Fast-food workers were not a typical target for unions, he said, partly because the turnover among workers made it less effective to build union ranks.

“I don’t think the objective is to sign up that fry cook making minimum wage.”

Rather, he said, waves of protest like this are aimed at swinging popular sentiment toward worker positions and to put pressure generally on politicians to raise minimum wages.

Unlike a typical factory strike, this wave of protests evokes a genre far more closely akin to the Occupy movement. Though he doubts there will be a groundswell of employers starting to raise wages, Berstein said this kind of protest is a far more modern approach, and one that lends itself to activities via social media — something of a protest via Tweet and Facebook posts and mobile video.

John Fantow heard about the protests on the radio and came in support.

“I think there’s something to it,” he said of the movement. “If you’re a teen and this is your first job, you’d be happy with $7.25 an hour. But can you raise a family on that, I don’t think so.”

Meanwhile, Wendy’s district manager Reyes Gomez watched the action outside his restaurant window and took a philosophical view.

“This is a free country,” he said. “Isn’t that what we fight for? To make this a free country?”

The movement comes amid calls from the White House, some members of Congress and economists to hike the federal minimum wage. But most proposals seek a far more modest increase than the one workers are asking for, with President Barack Obama wanting to boost it to $9 an hour.

Florida’s minimum wage stands at $7.79 per hour.

Information from The Associated Press was used in this report.

rmullins@tampatrib.com

(813) 259-7919

Twitter: @DailyDeadline

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