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August 20, 2013

Low-wage workers set nationwide walkout for Aug. 29

Emboldened by an outpouring of support on social media, low-wage fast-food and retail workers from eight cities who have staged walkouts this year are calling for a national day of strikes Aug. 29.

The workers - who are backed by local community groups and national unions and have held one-day walkouts in cities such as New York, St. Louis and Detroit - say they have received pledges of support from workers in dozens of cities across the country.

The workers are calling for a wage of $15 an hour and the right to form a union. Organizers of the walkout say cashiers, cooks and crew members at fast-food restaurants are paid a median wage of $8.94 an hour.

Since some 200 workers walked off their jobs at fast-food restaurants in New York City this past November, the strikes have moved across the country, drawing attention to a fast-growing segment of the workforce that until recently had shown no inclination to organize for purposes of collective bargaining.

The planned August walkout - timed for the immediate aftermath of the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom and the lead-up to Labor Day - is expected to touch 35 or more cities and involve thousands of workers, organizers said. The walkouts have not led to widespread changes, though some workers say they have gotten small pay increases and better hours in the wake of previous strikes.

"The top executives in these companies make huge salaries and the corporations make record profits every year," said Terrance Wise, 34, a father of three who earns $9.30 an hour at Burger King in Kansas City, where he has worked for eight years. He has a second job at Pizza Hut that pays him $7.47 an hour. "How about them cutting a little off the top? CEOs are taking home millions and many workers are struggling."

Wise said that he has looked for better-paying work but has had no luck. "All kinds of industries are cutting back workers," he said. "Most people are forced into these low-wage jobs. The options aren't as plentiful as people think."

Wise, who has been working with Kansas City organizers since January and has participated in one walkout, says he has helped sign up scores of workers who plan to join the nationwide job action.

Willietta Dukes, 39, a mother of two living in Durham, N.C., said she plans to walk off her job at Burger King that day. She said she has little choice. After 15 years of working behind the counters, griddles and deep fryers of fast-food restaurants, she still earns a poverty-level wage. She said her highest salary has been $8.65 an hour, and she rarely is scheduled for a 40-hour week.

 "I have been watching on TV and I have seen a lot of people forming around the country, striking for better wages and to have their voices heard. I think it is high time that I did something," Dukes said. "I work hard. I don't sit around. I am good at what I do. Yet after working all day, I do not earn enough to even pay for the basics. I don't want to be in poverty forever."

The fast-food workers are expected to be joined by retail workers from stores such as Macy's, Dollar Tree and Sears. Many of them said they have received pledges of support on Facebook and through the websites of local organizing groups.

Although he has not commented on the fast-food walkouts, President Barack Obama has called on Congress to increase the federal minimum wage from $7.25 to $9 a hour. The idea has broad support from voters, but opponents say it would further hurt job creation. A recent Public Religion Research Institute survey found that nearly three of four Americans favored raising the minimum wage to $10.

The fledgling movement, which has been aided by the Service Employees International Union and other labor groups, as well as local religious groups, argues that many fast-food and low-paid retail workers are forced to rely on government aid programs to provide for their families, even as fast-food corporations rake in $200 billion a year in revenues.

Moreover, organizers say, most fast-food workers are adults relying on the jobs to support themselves and their families, not teenagers looking to earn pocket money. The Economic Policy Institute, a liberal research group, says that roughly eight out of 10 workers in the country earning minimum wage are age 20 or older, and half of them work 40 hours a week.

"It is clear that the bulk of minimum-wage workers are mid- or full-time adult employees, not teenagers or part-timers," the EPI researchers said.

Fast-food industry representatives have said that jobs in their restaurants offer a valuable gateway into the workforce for millions of workers, most of whom move on to other, better-paying jobs. In addition, they say that fast-food franchises, as well as retailers, often operate on wafer-thin profit margins and that paying workers as much as $15 an hour would drive them out of business.

But workers say something is going to have to give. "I personally think a $15-an-hour wage is very obtainable," said Shonda Roberts, 38, a mother of three who works at KFC in Oakland, Calif. She says she plans to walk off the job with other workers.

"As hard as we work, are we not worth $15 an hour? I certainly believe I am."

      

       

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