Aug. 29, 2013 -- Fast food workers demanding higher pay protested today nationwide, outside restaurants owned by Burger King, KFC, McDonald's, Wendy's and other chains. Organizers said demonstrations were taking place in as many as 50 cities big and small, including New York, Dallas and Chicago; but also San Leandro, Calif.; and Missoula, Mont.
Mary Kay Henry, president of the Service Employees International Union, one of several unions providing support to the protesters, said in a statement: "The fast food workers are fighting for all of us. SEIU members, like all service-sector workers, are worse off when large fast-food and retail companies are able to hold down wages."
The protests came a day after the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, one of the objectives of which had been to give all Americans "a decent standard of living."
Organizers said the protests extend beyond fast food restaurants and include some stores owned by Macy's, Sears and Victoria's Secret, among other retailers, and even coffee bars in Seattle.
The federal minimum wage--$7.25 an hour—last was raised in 2009. Protesters are asking for $15 an hour.
The National Restaurant Association told ABC News the argument over raising wages should be based on fact—and that the fact is, only 5 percent of restaurant employees earn the minimum wage. The association further says that the 5 percent are mostly part-time workers, and that half are teenagers.
A statement by McDonald's to ABC News said in part: "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. We provide training and professional development for all of those who wish to take advantage of those opportunities. Our history is full of examples of individuals who worked their first job with McDonald's and went on to successful careers both within and outside of McDonald's."
The Economic Policy Institute (EPI) contends that the popular image of fast-food workers (and of low-wage workers generally) is inaccurate. They say that if one looks not just at people making the minimum wage but workers between $7.25 on up to $10 an hour—the group that would benefit most from a minimum wage increase—a different picture emerges: The roughly 21 million workers in this group include plenty of adults working full-time whose wages contribute half their family's household income.
David Cooper, economic analyst at EPI, tells ABC News, "The perception is that low-wage workers are mostly teens working part-time after school, living with their parents and just needing some spending money to buy video games. That's really not the case. Eight-eight percent are age 20 or older. Their average age is 35; their median age is 31. Over a quarter have children of their own, and more than half work full time—35 hours a week or more. The perception is they're secondary earners, as if their income isn't that important. In fact, on average, they earn half of their family's total income."
Fast-food workers make up less than one-quarter of total low-wage workers. Asked how fast-food workers might differ from the picture being painted by EPI, Cooper tells ABC News he doesn't know: EPI's study divided low-wage workers into segments (retail, 24 percent; leisure/hospitality, including fast food, 23 percent; education or health services, 19 percent; and other, 34 percent). They didn't do separate demographics for each group.
Asked how many fast food workers are unionized, he says: "It's probably very small. The share of the private sector that's unionized is only 7 percent, total." Fast-food, he says, is a high turnover industry. "It's hard to organize because of that."
Harry Holzer, a professor of public policy at Georgetown and author of "Where Are All The Good Jobs Going?" confirms the jobs have high turnover. Because the jobs require so little skill, he says, fast food workers are easy to replace. "If you're McDonald's," he says, "every restaurant has a stack of applications."
Holzer questions how much EPI's overall description of low-wage workers applies to people working in fast food. They are indeed more likely to be teenagers or young people working part-time, he says. The cleaning person at a motel, the worker in child care or elder care—those jobs, he says, all demand more skill than does that of somebody working at the typical fast-food job.
He views raising the minimum wage a risk to low-skill workers. "They're easy to replace—that's the problem." In 2007, he says, he was a big supporter of raising the minimum wage. "But since then inflation has been low. There's been little erosion of that increase." Given how bad the job market is, he says, he'd rather not risk adding "one more possible negative" (raising the minimum wage) that might result in more job losses.