Early this morning, more than one hundred fast-food workers and their supporters rallied at a church in East Oakland to mark the one-year anniversary of their campaign to lift up wages and improve working conditions in the East Bay's food service industry. After a few words to mark the occasion, the workers filed into vehicles and carpooled to a nearby McDonald's restaurant on the corner of International and 98th Avenue. Chanting “super-size our checks,” they filled the restaurant's dining room and crowded the counter, briefly shutting down business at the busy eatery.
So began today's fast-food worker strike, the latest action in a nation-wide campaign that began two years ago in New York City when hundreds of employees walked off their jobs. The movement quickly spread. Organizers claim that today workers are striking, or holding other protest actions, in more than 160 cities from coast to coast.
Today's actions in Oakland follows the recent passage of a $12.25 minimum wage ballot initiative that will boost fast food worker pay next March, as well as providing paid sick days. Many of the same workers and activists behind the fast food strikes were instrumental in organizing the minimum wage campaign.
At the McDonald's on 98th Avenue, two workers found the strikers persuasive enough to join in. Jamal Banks, who has worked at McDonald's for a year, pulled his bike out from behind the counter and stepped out into the crowd of strikers with a big smile on his face. “They're not paying me enough,” said Banks after walking off the job to strike. “It's bad.” The strikers then appealed to the remaining employees chanting: “Come on out, we got your back!” Banks pulled a T-shirt over his McDonald's uniform that read “up the pay,” but he admitted feeling “a little nervous” about taking the step of striking.
At other fast food restaurants throughout Oakland, employees complain of dangerous working conditions and harsh treatment from managers, in addition to low pay as a reason for the strikes. Part of the broader Fight for $15 campaign, a national effort supported by the Service Employees International Union, the fast food strikers hope to eventually win $15 minimum wages and union recognition across the food service industry.
A study published by the UC Berkeley Labor Center last year found that 52 percent of fast-food workers are paid so little that they must enroll in public assistance programs to make ends meet
, and to access health insurance. Many fast food employees work full-time but still live in poverty. The total societal cost of the sector's extremely low pay is estimated at $7 billion per year.
Fast food companies like McDonald's have responded to the workers' campaign saying that higher wages will lead to layoffs, force franchise owners to raise prices, and that workers' demands may lead to store closures.
Fast food companies are highly profitable. McDonald's total US sales last year were approximately $32 billion.
McDonald's stock is valued at $95 per share, and the company has increased dividends paid to investors from 37 cents in 2008 to 85 cents last month. Yum! Brands, the corporate conglomerate that owns KFC, Taco Bell, and Pizza Hut has seen its stock price shoot up from $6 a share in 2000 to $77 a share today. Yum! Brands CEO David Novak was paid a $10 million salary last year, while McDonald's CEO Donald Thompson received $9.4 million.