U.S. fast-food workers and their supporters have campaigned for more than two years to win higher wages and the right to unionize, but so far their pleas have fallen on deaf ears of the executives at the most recognized chains like McDonald’s, KFC and Burger King.
The movement that began in New York with demands for a $15 hourly starting wage went global Thursday with one-day strikes across the United States and more than 30 other countries, both fully developed countries like Belgium, where the minimum wage is $2,051 a month, to emerging markets like the Philippines, where the average hourly wage floor is about 96 cents.
"This is just the beginning of an unprecedented international fast-food worker movement -- and this highly profitable global industry better take note," said Ron Oswald, general secretary of the International Union of Food, Agricultural, Hotel, Restaurant, Catering, Tobacco and Allied Workers' Associations, a global labor group representing 12 million workers that coordinated the effort.
The U.S.-based Service Employees International Union has played an important role in organizing community groups and workers -- that is, those of them willing to risk losing hours by coming out in support of a movement strongly opposed by companies and their lobbying group, the National Restaurant Association.
“These are made-for-TV media moments -- that’s pretty much it,” Scott DeFife, an executive vice president for the association, told the New York Times.
Organizers hope that U.S.-based publicly listed fast-food companies will respond to their demands as they are increasingly dependent on global growth to keep their shareholders satisfied.
McDonald’s Corp. (NYSE:MCD), for example, generated more revenue from European operations last year, $2.71 billion, than it did in the United States, at $2.05 billion.
Growth in Asia has boosted profits for Yum Brands Inc. (NYSE:YUM) in recent years on strong demand for its KFC and Pizza Hut brands.
Both companies regularly pay quarterly shareholder dividends -- money they give to investors to encourage them to hold or buy shares -- and both increased these payments last year.
The worker movement comes as the White House and Democrats in Congress are calling for a 39 percent hike to the national hourly minimum wage, to $10.10, a push strongly opposed by Republicans and restaurant business interests that say raising the wage floor will kill jobs.
The federal government’s stalled efforts might not matter, though, as states and cities have stepped up to address raising wages at local levels.