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Fast-food workers take stage over wages

Protests’ impact in multiple cities is uncertain

Fast food worker Michelle Osborn, 23, demonstrated with a few dozen people outside a McDonald’s in Flint, Mich.

Jake May/The Flint Journal via Associated Press

Fast food worker Michelle Osborn, 23, demonstrated with a few dozen people outside a McDonald’s in Flint, Mich.

Terrance Wise has two jobs in Kansas City — one at a burger joint, a second at a pizza restaurant — but he says his paychecks aren’t enough to buy shoes for his three daughters and insure his 15-year-old car. So he decided to draw attention to his plight: He walked off work in protest.

Wise was among a few thousand fast-food workers in seven cities, including New York, Chicago, and Detroit, who took to the streets last week, carrying ‘‘Strike’’ and ‘‘Supersize Our Wages’’ signs in front of McDonald’s, Wendy’s, Burger King, and other restaurants. They demanded better pay, the right to unionize, and a more than doubling of the federal minimum hourly wage from $7.25 to $15.

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‘‘We work hard for companies that are making millions,’’ said Wise, 35, adding that he lost his home last year, unable to make mortgage payments despite working about 50-hour weeks at Pizza Hut and Burger King. ‘‘We’re not asking for the world. We want to make enough to make a decent living. We deserve better. If they respect us and pay us and treat us right, it’ll lift up the whole economy.’’

These one-day protests, which also took place in St. Louis, Milwaukee, and Flint, Mich., come amid calls from the White House, some members of Congress, and economists to raise the federal minimum wage, which was last increased in 2009. Most of the proposals, though, seek a more modest rise than those urged by fast-food workers. President Obama wants to boost the hourly wage to $9. And in July, more than 100 economists signed a petition supporting a bill sponsored by a Florida congressman that would hike it to $10.50 an hour.

The restaurant industry argues that a $15 hourly wage could lead to businesses closing and fewer jobs. It also notes the cost of living varies greatly around the country and many states have higher minimum wages than the federal rate. (Eighteen states and the District of Columbia, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.)

The Employment Policies Institute, which receives some funding from the industry, ran a full-page ad last week in USA Today, warning of another potential consequence: It showed the uniform of a fast-food worker with an iPad face, saying the wage increase could result in employees being replaced with automation, such as touchscreen ordering.

So at a time when the economy is growing steadily but slowly and about 11.5 million people are unemployed — nearly double the level before the Great Recession — how likely is it Congress will increase the minimum wage? And have these protests done any good? The answers depend on whom you ask.

‘‘They’re very effective,’’ said US Representative Keith Ellison, a Minnesota Democrat and cochairman of the Congressional Progressive Caucus. ‘‘They’ve brought attention to appalling conditions with workers putting in very long hours . . . and not making enough money to survive. This I think is scandal. . . . We believe it’s essential to be paid livable wages. We know the companies can afford it. These are highly profitable businesses. It would be good not just for the family budget but for the national budget.’’

But others are more skeptical and think if there is a winner, it’s unions. The Service Employees International Union is providing financial support and staff to help train organizers for this campaign.

These protests show unions ‘‘still can appeal to and speak for workers who are on the fringes of the workforce — the less skilled, the part-timers, and the immigrant workers,’’ Gary Chaison, professor of industrial relations at Clark University in Massachusetts, wrote in an e-mail.

These still are hard times, people are happy to be employed, and the political climate in the House is not conducive for an increase, he adds. ‘‘The demonstrations are street theater and the rehabilitation of the image of American unions, but it’s not going to drive new minimum wage policy,’’ he wrote.

Scott DeFife, executive vice president of the National Restaurant Association, called the protests a campaign ‘‘to disparage the industry,’’ which he said operates on a tight profit margin. Doubling wages, he said, ‘‘would definitely have an impact on the creation of new jobs.’’ He said it would be especially harmful for young people, for whom the jobless rate in some communities is in the double digits.

The average hourly salary for fast-food workers was $9 in May 2012, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The average age for these workers is 29 years old; for women, it’s 32, according to the bureau. The restaurant association said its own analysis of census data found that slightly more than 25 percent of fast-food workers are heads of households.

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