Fast-Food Workers in Connecticut Protest Low Wages
Thousands of local fast food employees are living on a shoestring budget
By Gregory B. Hladky
August 27, 2013
If you believe people who serve you food should be able to get a living wage, you might want to honor the picket lines of the Connecticut fast-food workers expected to join a national strike on Thursday.
Organizers and local activists say they expect workers at some McDonalds, Burger King, Dunkin Donuts, Subway and KFC stores in at least the Hartford area to be walking out in an effort to convince employers to pay higher wages.
The fast-food worker strikes that spread through eight cities in the U.S. earlier this year are expected to occur in at least 35 urban areas around the nation on Thursday, one national organizer says.
One of the workers planning to go out on strike Thursday is Kevin Burgos, who's been employed at the Dunkin Donuts on Weston Street in Hartford for the past eight years. "The last time I got a raise was about six years ago," says Burgos, a 26-year-old with three children who is now making $10.50 an hour. "I'm basically hoping we can get better wages... I'm trying to make a decent amount so I don't have to live in poverty."
Burgos says he's not worried that he might lose his job if he walks out on Thursday, and says he believes most of the 20-or-so other employees at his Dunkin Donuts shop also plan to join the job action.
"The Connecticut effort seems to be gaining momentum mostly in Hartford," says Lindsay Farrell, executive director of Connecticut's Working Families Party. "But Hartford won't be alone."
The WFP is part of the coalition of labor, community and church groups that is working to support the fast-food workers' efforts in this state. Farrell and other activists and supporters of the job action declined to be specific about exactly which fast-food restaurants may be targeted on Thursday.
The prospect of strike action has allegedly triggered threats and warnings from some managers, according to one union official. "We are hearing there have been some reactions," says John Olsen, head of the Connecticut AFL-CIO. He says the word is going around that at least one Hartford-area fast-food manager has told workers "If you don't show up, you're fired."
A spokesman for the national strike effort says a major part of the counter to those sorts of threats is to gain the support of local unions, community and church groups for the striking workers. The spokesman is working for a PR firm hired by unions involved in the organizing effort. He says immediate public pressure from local politicians, ministers and others in one New York City case of a fast-food worker who was fired during the last round of strikes forced the employer to rapidly rehire the terminated person.
"We've found that, when there's this kind of community support, it's much harder for a restaurant to retaliate against workers," the spokesman says.
Connecticut's minimum wage is now $8.25 per hour, and state lawmakers voted this year to raise it to $8.70 per hour on Jan. 1, 2014, and to $9 an hour as of January 2015. But activists supporting Connecticut's 26,000 restaurant and fast-food workers pointed out that the new law will have little impact on their wages.
Many restaurant workers in this state don't even get the minimum wage. They're paid under a system that is supposed to figure in tips. The base wage for them is currently $5.69 an hour.
Getting $8.25 an hour is no big deal anyway. For a full-time worker (and there are lots more folks working full-time for minimum wages since the Great Recession hit), that amounts to just $17,160 annually. The federal poverty threshold for an adult with a couple of kids is $19,530.
Lots of fast-food workers do usually make slightly more than the minimum in Connecticut and the nation.
The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics last year reported the average wage for the approximately 505,000 fast-food cooks in this country was $9.03 per hour, which comes out at $18,780 a year (still below the federal poverty line). Overall, the 2.9 million food preparation and service employees in the U.S. averaged $9 an hour.
"If people work, they should be able to support themselves," says Olsen. "You ought to be able to work and be compensated enough so you don't have be on welfare too."
He says lots of people in the fast-food industry are having to work two or even three jobs to make ends meet. Olsen also calls it "an illusion" that most fast-food workers are teenagers who are only doing it for a little pocket money.
According to press reports, an effort by McDonald's to provide workers with a budget to show them how to live on the minimum wage was a giant flop. The guide apparently demonstrated that those workers would actually need a second job to pay for food and heat.
Olsen says that, while various unions are supporting the fast-food workers strikes, this job action wasn't triggered by traditional union organizing. "This is a bottom-up movement."
These job actions, however, are definitely getting direct support from labor organizations such as the Service Employees International Union and the United Food & Commercial Workers. Both are clients of the public relations agency that is acting as a conduit for information about the job actions.
Fast-food industry officials insist that their restaurants are running on very low profit margins, and that significant increases in the amount they pay workers would force businesses to shut down and thus provide fewer jobs.
The top House Republican on the General Assembly's Labor Committee, state Rep. Richard A. Smith of New Fairfield, warned during the minimum-wage debate in May that the high cost of labor in this state "just suffocates our businesses."
Critics of the call for a "living wage" for these workers warn that organizers could end up hurting the very people they're trying to help.
Supporters of the fast-food workers' job action point out that the top executives at these huge fast-food chains are making millions of dollars a year, and that there is a massive and growing disparity in pay between employees and employers in the U.S.
"The gap between rich and poor – especially in this state – is widening," Olsen says.
"They're fighting for $15 an hour and the right to organize a union," Farrell says of the fast-food workers. "So the people who work in these places are coming together... and it transcends any particular corporation."
"I'd be happy to pay five cents more for my Big Mac if it would give workers a decent wage," says Olsen.