Seven Charleston-area fast food workers, including six McDonald’s employees, were arrested Wednesday during a protest at the company’s annual shareholder meeting in Oak Brook, Illinois. A delegation of ten workers from Charleston joined more than 2,000 fast-food workers, community supporters, clergy and elected officials at the corporate headquarters near Chicago to escalate their call for $15 an hour and the right to form a union without retaliation. Wednesday’s protest took place less than a week after strikes and protests rocked 230 cities around the world in what MSNBC called the “biggest fast-food strike ever.”
Among the local McDonald’s workers arrested was Cherri Delisline, a mother of four. “I’ve been working for McDonalds for 10 years and my hourly paycheck is the same now as it was my first day on the job: $7.35,” she said. “It’s not okay for McDonald’s to rake in huge profits but pay us so little we can’t support our families. I went on strike and now I got arrested, and I will continue to protest until McDonald’s listens.” Delisline was among more than 100 McDonald’s workers to be arrested Wednesday.
The SC AFL-CIO, the Charleston Central Labor Council, the SC Progressive Network (Charleston chapter), the Carolina Alliance for Fair Employment, the Coalition (People United to Take Back our Community), and the International Longshoremen’s Association (Local 1422) stand in solidarity with the Charleston fast food workers and their efforts to form a union and raise the minimum wage. Last Thursday (May 15), more than three dozen workers went on strike at area fast food restaurants. They were joined on picket lines in front of Burger King (4709 Dorchester Rd., North Charleston) and McDonald’s (2988 W. Montague Ave., North Charleston) by dozens of community supporters.
“If you do the math it doesn’t add up to surviving,” said Erin McKee, president of the SC AFL-CIO. “You cannot live on $7.25 an hour.” McKee noted that many of the fast food workers are also parents. “I know what it’s like to wonder if you have enough to pay the bills or to worry about losing your job if you miss work because your child gets sick,” said McKee who has been a single parent for all of her adult life.
McDonald’s annual shareholder meeting, scheduled for Thursday, approaches as investors and company officials are increasingly realizing they need to respond to workers’ call for higher pay. In a filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission, the company admitted that the growing and focus on inequality might force them to raise wages. And in response to class-action lawsuits against McDonald’s that allege widespread and systematic wage theft, the company announced it was launching a comprehensive investigation.
Scrutiny on the company has intensified since the release of a report earlier this month by Demos showing that the fast-food industry has the largest disparity between worker and CEO pay. New York City Comptroller Scott Stringer said that excessive pay disparities “pose a risk to share owner value,” and that conversations around inequality should move into the boardrooms of profitable fast-food companies.
USA Today noted that the growing worker movement would be front-and-center at McDonald’s annual shareholder meeting, naming it “the issue that just won’t go away.” And Business Insider wrote that the company was barring reporters from the annual meeting because of “the pressure the company is feeling from shareholders, franchisees, and especially workers — who are planning to protest at the meeting in Oakbrook, Illinois.”
“The problems of pay disparity in fast food extend beyond the industry to affect the rest of our economy,” said Catherine Ruetschlin, Demos Policy Analyst and author of the report Fast Food Failure. “Even the industry leader, McDonald’s, has acknowledged that rising inequality is a risk to their bottom line, as companies see the negative consequences of pay disparity appear as operational issues, legal challenges, and diminishing worker and customer satisfaction. Those consequences pose a real risk to shareholders, who have a material interest in addressing the practices that drive income inequality, undermine the long-term performance of the firm, and inhibit stability and growth in the economy overall.”
As McDonald’s U.S. sales are slumping, the company is facing growing criticism from both customers and franchisees. A recent Harris poll found that McDonald’s reputation among customers fell sharply, and surveys show that a majority of franchise owners are upset with the company, describing their relationship as “poor” and giving McDonald’s the lowest ratings it’s seen in 12 years.
In the past year, McDonald’s was widely ridiculed for its sample budget for workers, which required them to get a second job to make ends meet; its employee advice site that told workers to sing away stress, take small bites of food to avoid hunger and not eat fast food; an employee hotline that encouraged workers to apply for public assistance; and findings that the company costs U.S. taxpayers $1.2 billion annually in public assistance for its workers.
McDonald’s workers who will protest at the annual meeting, and who have now struck six times in the past 18 months, are challenging the company’s outdated notion that their workers are teenagers looking for pocket change. Research shows that a majority of fast-food workers are adults, many of whom are struggling to raise children on a median wage of $8.94.
A campaign that started in New York City in November 2012, with 200 fast-food workers walking off their jobs demanding $15 and the right to form a union without retaliation, has since spread to more than 150 cities in every region of the country, including the South—and now around the world. The growing fight for $15 has been credited with elevating the debate around inequality in the U.S. When Seattle’s mayor proposed a $15 minimum wage earlier this month, Businessweek said he was “adopting the rallying cry of fast-food workers.”
The spread of the worker movement overseas should cause further alarm. International fast-food restaurants are expected to expand at four times the rate of U.S. businesses, according to a recent Merrill Lynch report. And while US sales slump, companies like McDonald’s are relying on growth overseas to boost their bottom lines more than ever.
For more on last week’s strike and protests, visit fastfoodglobal.org.