A hand-lettered placard, reading “McDonald’s: Stop Fooling Around, $15 and a union,” caught the spirit of the crowd of at least 3,000 protestors in Chicago for a march to a McDonald’s restaurant in the downtown Loop area connected to the Chicago Board of Trade. In 236 cities in the U.S. and roughly 100 more around the world from Sao Paulo to New Zealand and from Glasgow to Tokyo, according to protest spokespeople, fast food and other low-wage workers joined together to pressure employers like McDonald’s to raise their workers’ pay.
Organizers claimed that it was the largest protest by low-wage workers in U.S. history. And it may very well rank as one of the broadest global worker protests ever undertaken against multinational corporations—one reinforced by recent investigations and lawsuits in Europe against the company for violations of labor, health, safety, tax and other laws.
The protest by tens of thousands of low-wage workers, students and activists in more than 200 American cities on Wednesday is the most striking effort to date in a two-and-a-half-year-old labor-backed movement that is testing the ability of unions to succeed in an economy populated by easily replaceable service sector workers.
Labor has invested tens of millions of dollars in a campaign for a $15-an-hour minimum wage that goes beyond traditional workplace organizing, taking on a cause that has captured broad public support. But the movement is up against a hostile business sector sheltered by a decades-old federal labor law that makes it difficult for workers to directly confront the wealthy corporations that dominate the fast-food and hospitality industries.
For political activists looking to the 2016 presidential campaign and beyond, the wage fight is coming at a potentially pivotal moment, the first concrete, large-scale challenge in decades to an economic system they view as skewed toward the wealthy.
The decision by McDonald’s to raise workers’ pay to at least $1 over the local minimum wage offers some help for the 90,000 employees at the 1,500 American restaurants run by its corporate headquarters, but the relief is minimal and leaves out the far greater number of workers at the company’s franchise outlets.
On average, the raise for eligible workers will lift pay to $9.90 an hour by July, up from $9.01, and to about $10 an hour in 2016. It does not apply to 660,000 employees at 12,500 McDonald’s franchises.
The increase follows moves by other low-wage employers but is more limited. It covers 12 percent of the McDonald’s work force and costs an amount equal to about 2 percent of profits in 2014. The recent raise at Walmart, to at least $10 an hour, covered nearly 40 percent of workers at a cost of about 6 percent of Walmart’s 2014 profits.
Clearly, if the McDonald’s raise were a response to the competition for workers, it would be bigger. And it does not come close to meeting protesters’ demands for $15 an hour, though the movement to improve fast-food workers’ pay has helped to push McDonald’s to this point.
McDonald’s announced on Wednesday that it would raise wages and offer new benefits to 90,000 employees in the 1,500 outlets in the United States that it owns and operates, responding to competitive pressure from a tighter job market and to labor campaigns drawing public attention to its pay policies.
The decision, however, does not affect the 750,000 employees who work for the more than 3,100 franchisees that operate roughly 12,500 McDonald’s restaurants around the country.
The company will increase wages to at least $1 over the local legal minimum wage for workers in restaurants under corporate control to an average of $9.90 an hour by July 1. That average will increase to more than $10 in 2016.
Employees who have worked in company restaurants more than a year will also be eligible for paid time off, whether they work full or part time. An employee who works an average of 20 hours a week might accrue as much as 20 hours of paid time off a year, the company said.