East Bay fast-food workers strike for higher wages

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Workers at fast-food restaurant chains in the East Bay and throughout the nation staged strikes, walkouts and rallies Thursday to demand increased wages, benefits and hours.

The workers, most of whom earn minimum wage, are asking fast-food companies to raise their pay to at least $15 per hour. On Thursday, they walked out of more than 30 businesses, including McDonald’s, Taco Bell, KFC and Burger King, in cities from Richmond to Fremont.

Beth Trimarco, a spokesperson for the nonprofit East Bay Alliance for a Sustainable Economy, which supports the strikes, said fast-food employees live on poverty wages and are forced to make impossible decisions among food, rent and child care.

“Those who work full time are still under the federal poverty line,” she said. “People who work should not have to rely on the government or taxpayer-provided services. Fast-food companies should not be forcing taxpayers to shoulder the burden for their profits in a $200 billion industry.”

Three rallies were held throughout the day in Oakland, with attendees including workers participating in the walkout and supporters from the community. About 500 people attended the final rally about 4:30 p.m. in the parking lot of a McDonald’s, Trimarco said.

Many fast-food companies say that raising wages would increase food prices, thereby driving out customers and eventually forcing layoffs. California Restaurant Association spokesperson Angelica Pappas said strike organizers are inaccurately portraying the makeup of the fast-food industry. She said the industry mostly consists of young people looking for an entry point into the workforce, with the majority moving on to better-paying jobs.

“There’s nothing wrong with entry-level work that teaches young people the basics of having a job,” she said. “If you want to make the restaurant your career, there is absolutely an opportunity to do that, to work your way up. You hear about dishwashers working their way up to own their own franchise.”

Pappas added that most fast-food franchises operate on a 1 percent to 5 percent profit margin and that the subsequent rise in food prices caused by increasing minimum wage would be more than consumers would be willing to bear.

Workers seem to remain unconvinced, however. Strikes have been occurring for months in New York and other East Coast cities. Activists say the movement was spurred by the challenges of subsisting on minimum wage, which federal law sets at $7.25 an hour. Notably, no walkouts were planned for San Francisco, which has one of the nation’s most progressive minimum wages at $10.55 per hour.

Jason Hughes, an employee at a McDonald’s in Fremont, said his wage remains stagnant at $8.25 an hour after a year and a half of work at the restaurant. He aspires to get out of Fremont and to go to college but said he cannot afford to do either at his current wage. At $15 an hour, he said, he would be able to reunite his family in a new house and would not have to decide between eating dinner and taking a bus to work.

“I’m not in it just for me,” Hughes said. “I’m in it for all the workers. The people who didn’t think they had a voice know they have a voice now.”

Jeremy Gordon is a news editor. Contact him at [email protected].