The protests were organized by a coalition of labor, community and clergy groups called Fast Food Forward.
According to CNN, the group is asking employers to pay workers a minimum of $15 an hour, and for the right to organize without retaliation and intimidation.
CNN points out that under the National Labor Relations Act, workers are protected from retaliation as long as they work in concert with at least one other employee to try to change their working conditions. “However, they can be permanently replaced if they strike for purely economic reasons.”
The New York Labor Department claims the current median pay for the nearly 50,000 fast food workers in New York City is $9 an hour, or $18,500 a year. That’s about $4,500 lower than Census Bureau’s poverty income threshold level of $23,000 for a family of four.
Minimum wage in New York is $7.25 an hour, but food service workers may earn far less at $4.65 an hour because tips are factored in to their total compensation.
“You don’t have a life when you get paid this little. My body is breaking down,” said Noel Scott, who has been delivering Domino’s Pizza in New York City for three years.
Scott makes $5.45 an hour plus tips and has to work two other jobs to pay the bills. “And with no benefits, we can’t afford to get sick.”
Fast-food franchisees, most of whom are small business owners, claim raising wages would be a burden.
“Any additional labor cost can negatively impact a restaurant’s ability to hire or maintain jobs,” said Scott DeFife, executive vice president of policy and government affairs at the National Restaurant Association.
In other words, raising wages would force small business owners to distribute a higher percentage of profits among their employees, and business owners have a preconceived notion of how much profit they’re entitled to.
The National Employment Law Project (NELP), a group that advocates for a higher minimum wage, says the purchasing power of the minimum wage is 30 percent lower today than it was in 1968.
In the fast food industry, NELP says, the big names have weathered the recession, and they are seeing solid profits and passing them along to top executives and shareholders, but not to their lowest-paid workers.
“Fast food and other low-wage workers often qualify for food stamps and other public assistance, meaning that taxpayers subsidize their wages.”
The walk outs were scheduled to coincide with the 45th anniversary of the assassination of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., who was shot one day after he delivered his famous speech in support of striking sanitation workers.
“To think that in 2013 we’re having the same discussion about gaining a respectable wage and the right to organize as we had in 1968 is ludicrous,” said Minister Kirsten John Foy, a civil rights activist at the National Action Network in Brooklyn who is participating in the protests.
Because of the high labor turnover rate in the fast-food industry, attempts to organize over the last 20 years have been largely unsuccessful.
According to the Labor Department’s latest data on how much American workers are paid, food service workers dominate the list of the lowest-paid professions.
Below are the 10 lowest-paid workers as measured by average annual pay, according to 2012 Labor Department data:
2) Food Preparation and Serving Workers
3) Fast Food Cooks
5) Counter Attendants, Cafeteria, Food Concession, Coffee Shop
6) Hosts/Hostesses, Restaurants, Lounge, Coffee Shop
7) Dining Room, Cafeteria Attendants, Bartender Helpers
8) Farm Workers, Laborers, Crop, Nursery, Greenhouse
9) Amusement and Recreation Attendants
10) Ushers, Lobby Attendants, Ticket Takers