Fast-food workers protest low wages

Fast-food workers and labor organizers on Thursday rallied in protest over low wages, with actions taking place in 100 cities including Cincinnati, Cleveland and Columbus.

The actions began about a year ago and are spearheaded by the Service Employees International Union, which has spent millions to bankroll local worker groups and organize publicity for the demonstrations. At a time when there’s growing national and international attention on economic disparities, advocacy groups and Democrats are also hoping to build public support to raise the federal minimum wage of $7.25. That comes to about $15,000 a year for full-time work.

Proposals are to hike the federal minimum wage to $10.10 an hour.

Protesters are calling for pay of $15 an hour, but the figure is seen more as a rallying point than a near-term possibility.

Ohio’s minimum wage, pegged to inflation, increases on Jan. 1 to $7.95 per hour for non-tipped employees and to $3.98 per hour for tipped employees. The current pay level is $7.85 or $3.93 per hour, according to the state commerce department.

Strikes were held at fast-food chains such as McDonald’s, Wendy’s, Burger King, and KFC.

About 30 Cincinnati area protesters gathered during the lunch hour Thursday at a corporate-owned Wendy’s at 5330 Ridge Avenue. Those involved in organizing the local event were liberal group ProgressOhio, the Cincinnati Interfaith Committee, Service Employees International Union and the group Fight for a Fair Economy.

“The wages have not kept up… with profits of these companies,” said David Little, spokesman for ProgressOhio in Cincinnati.

“If you do not have a living wage, you end up on food stamps, you have to go to Medicaid for your health care,” Little said. “Why are all these people who are working 40 hours a week in some cases, why are they below the poverty level and why are they being assisted by the government and taxpayers when these companies are taking the profits?”

Thursday’s events followed protests held in November at Walmart stores ahead of Black Friday, including stores in Butler Twp. and Evendale. Union members, supporters and workers that protested at the Walmarts said employees were being retaliated against for speaking out against working conditions. Workers also demanded more full-time employees making more than $25,000 a year.

In response to the fast-food industry rallies, the National Restaurant Association, an industry lobbying group, said most of those protesting were union workers and that “relatively few” workers have participated in past actions. It called the demonstrations a “campaign engineered by national labor groups.”

The Ohio Restaurant Association called the attacks unfair.

“We welcome a debate on fair wages, but it needs to be fact-based and reflect that the majority of U.S. workers who earn the minimum wage are not employed in the restaurant industry,” said Geoff Hetrick, Ohio Restaurant Association president and chief executive, in a statement. “In fact, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, only 5 percent of restaurant employees earn the minimum wage and those who do are predominantly working part-time jobs and nearly half are teenagers.”

McDonald’s said in a statement that it’s “committed to providing our employees with opportunities to succeed.” The company, based in Oak Brook, Ill., said it offers employees advancement opportunities, competitive pay and benefits.

Dublin, Ohio-based restaurant chain Wendy’s said in a written statement it “is proud that we can help people who want to work. We give thousands of people who apply for an entry-level job the opportunity to learn important business and personal skills so they can either grow with us… or move on to another career.”

In the meantime, the protests are getting some high-powered support from the White House. In an economic policy speech Wednesday, President Barack Obama specifically mentioned fast-food and retail workers “who work their tails off and are still living at or barely above poverty” in his call for raising the federal minimum wage.

Labor Secretary Thomas Perez also offered words of support for the protesters on the agency’s blog.

“We see momentum gathering and a consensus emerging around the idea that we need to increase the federal minimum wage, to give these workers and millions like them a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work,” Perez said in the statement.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., has promised a vote on the wage hike by the end of the year. But the measure is not expected to gain traction in the House, where Republican leaders oppose it.

Staff Writer Chelsey Levingston and The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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