Strike by St. Louis McDonald’s workers part of 15-city walkout ahead of company’s annual shareholder meeting
By TIM ROWDEN
As fast-food companies scramble to find workers, McDonald’s cooks and cashiers in St. Louis and across the country rallied and held job actions May 19, ahead of the company’s annual shareholders meeting, to demand the fast-food giant pay every worker a wage of least $15 an hour.
In St. Louis, workers rallied at the McDonald’s at 4260 South Kingshighway Blvd., carrying signs that said and wearing bright red t-shirts that read “Our labor is worth more” and “Respect Us, Protect Us, Pay Us.”
Other strikes and rallies were held in Los Angeles, Oakland, San Francisco, Miami, Tampa, Orlando, Chicago, Detroit, Flint, Kansas City, Houston, Milwaukee, Durham and Charleston.
Amid a national reckoning on low pay and poor job quality, striking cooks and cashiers are demanding fair wages and a voice on the job for all McDonald’s workers.
“McDonald’s can afford to pay us,” said Frances Holmes, a Fight for $15 activist and former McDonald’s worker, who now works at Which Wich Superior Sandwiches. “McDonald’s can lead the way and start paying $15. They’re the second largest employer in the world. If McDonald’s pays, Burger King, White Castle, Taco Bell, Rally’s, Church’s Chicken, all these companies will follow McDonald’s lead. McDonald’s leads the chains.
“Right now, I make $12 an hour, but it’s still not enough to cover the expenses in my home. My rent is $720. So that’s one check and a piece of another. That doesn’t count the gas, the electric, the water, the trash bill. I have all those bills. We shouldn’t be risking our lives every day during this pandemic working at McDonald’s without a paycheck to go along with it.”
McDonald’s netted nearly $5 billion in profits in 2020 and paid nearly $4 billion in dividends to its shareholders, but the workers who make the company’s enormous profits possible continue to struggle.
‘McDONALD’S WILL DO JUST FINE’
Officials in Washington D.C., under pressure from the National Restaurant Association (NRA), the International Franchise Association (IFA), U.S. Chamber of Commerce and National Small Business Association continue to resist demands to pass the Raise the Wage Act to gradually increase the federal minimum wage to $15/hr, insisting that raising the wage will cost jobs and result in higher prices, despite empirical evidence to the contrary from cities and state that already have instituted increases.
Even McDonald’s CEO Chris Kempczinski, in a call with investors earlier this year, said, “McDonald’s will do just fine” with increases to the minimum wage.
Kempczinski told investors the company “developed quite a bit of experience” with minimum wage hikes at the state level, and they haven’t been a problem.
“Our view is the minimum wage is most likely going to be increasing whether that’s federally or at the state level… and so long as it’s done… in a staged way and in a way that is equitable for everybody, McDonald’s will do just fine through that,” Kempczinski said.
McDonald’s recently announced it was increasing wages by 10 percent, pushing starting wages to between $11 and $17 per hour at its corporate-owned stores, which constitute about five percent of the company’s restaurants. The rest are owned by franchise owners, and most pay at or a little above their state’s minimum wage.
That’s just a start, Holmes said, “McDonald’s has given a wage increase to employees at its corporate stores, but there are no corporate stores in the state of Missouri.”
McDonald’s workers are calling on the company to withdraw from the National Restaurant Association (NRA) and the International Franchise Association (IFA). In 2019, McDonald’s pledged to stop lobbying against local, state and federal minimum wage increases — while continuing to retain membership in the NRA and the IFA. But since then, the NRA and IFA have spent more than $3 million lobbying against increasing the federal minimum wage.
COMPANIES CAN AFFORD IT
Denny’s Chief Financial Officer Robert Verostek told investors California’s law raising the minimum wage to $15 by 2023 has actually been good for the diner chain’s business.
“As they’ve increased their minimum wage, kind of in a tempered pace over that time frame, California has outperformed the system,” Verostek said. “Over that time frame, they had six consecutive years of positive guest traffic—not just positive sales, but positive guest traffic—as the minimum wage was going up.”
Domino’s Pizza CEO Ritch Allison told investors in February the company is already paying above the federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour. “We’re not paying the federal minimum wage anyway. You can’t go out there and hire people at that rate. We’re above the minimum wage, both for our folks that work inside the stores and our tip drivers on the road. And then in our supply chain business, we’re in excess of $15 an hour everywhere we operate.”
‘NO ONE WANTS TO WORK’
In recent months, McDonald’s and others have sounded an alarm about a nationwide shortage of individuals willing to work in fast-food. One McDonald’s store in Florida has even begun to pay people $50 just to show up for an interview. Another store in Fayetteville, North Carolina is offering a $500 signing bonus.
$15 WOULD BENEFIT WORKERS, TAXPAYERS AND EMPLOYERS
Companies like Costco, Amazon, Starbucks and Target have already raised pay to $15/hr, understanding that higher wages are good for workers and good for business.
At a Senate Budget Committee hearing in February, Costco CEO Craig Jelinek announced that the company would roll out a new starting wage of $16 an hour. He also told the committee that a majority of Costco’s hourly employees are paid above $25 an hour.
“Paying employees good wages…makes sense for our business and constitutes a significant competitive advantage for us,” Jelinek said. “It helps us in the long run by minimizing turnover and maximizing employee productivity.”
‘FIGHTING FOR NINE YEARS’
Workers with the Fight for $15 and a Union have been demanding a raise since long before the pandemic as part of a movement of fast-food cooks and cashiers led largely by Black and brown workers. Since 200 fast-food workers walked off the job in New York City in 2012, the movement has won $70 billion in raises for over 27 million workers, passing $15 minimum wage laws in eight states and putting more than 43 percent of the country on the path to $15. Last month, President Biden signed an executive order raising the minimum wage to $15/hr for federal contractors and subcontractors, putting an additional 390,000 workers on the path to $15 an hour.
“I’ve been fighting about nine years,” Donesha Babbit said at the St. Louis protest. “We were one of the first stores here. We’re not going to let them make it seem like they’re not able to pay us. They have us struggling all day every day during this pandemic. If we get sick, we don’t have any health insurance. If we get hurt, we don’t have any health insurance. Every day we take on a risk. We fight and we fight, and we fight. This fight should be over with. We should already have our $15 and a union. There’s no reason why we should still be standing out here today. It’s nine years later and we’re still fighting for the same thing.”
‘WE ARE ALL WORKING PEOPLE’
McDonald’s workers aren’t the only ones fighting for higher wages.
Jarretha Whitaker, a retired St. Louis Public Schools teacher, adjunct professor at St. Louis Community College at Forest Park, and member of Service Employees International Union’s (SEIU) Faculty Forward, joined workers at last week’s protest.
“Right now, adjunct professors like myself at coming together at St. Louis Community College to demand things like higher pay, pay for all required training and a voice in campus government. When you take what we’re paid per course and break it down to all the work that teachers do to prepare for class – teach, grade papers and all the things we do – we make something like $13 an hour – for a master’s degree.
“I’m proud to stand with McDonald’s workers who are on strike for $15 and a union,” she said.
“McDonald’s, one of the largest and most powerful employers in the world, could raise workers’ pay to $15 an hour tomorrow if it chose to do so. But it’s going to take people like you, every one of you, coming together and demanding it.
“There are adjunct professors, just like McDonald’s workers, who wake up every day in poverty; wake up every day without insurance. We are all working people, and we all get more together than we do apart. I learned when I was a public-school teacher that when we come together and we fight, things do get better.”