McDonalds Workers Dec2013 2
Fast-food worker protests have culminated in pay increases that promise to lift the fortunes of some, but not all, low-wage workers. In this photo, protesters stand outside a McDonald's restaurant in Los Angeles. Reuters

Nearly three years ago, on a balmy November morning, about 200 New York City fast-food workers walked off their jobs, demanding higher pay. Since then, the protest movement has gotten bigger, stronger and goes by a new name, the Fight for 15. But it has not yet delivered on its chief demand: wage gains for low-wage workers.

Average hourly pay barely kept pace with inflation over the last year, as this month’s job report shows. The trend holds for two of the fast-growing, low-paying fields targeted by the movement -- fast-food and home care -- and others in the service sector like retail. In fact, according to one report from a pro-labor think tank released this week, real wages actually fell in low-paying jobs from 2009 to 2014 -- and did so by a greater margin than their medium- to high-paying counterparts.

The protests aren’t without impact. Major cities and states have lifted their minimum pay floors, the Democratic Party has officially embraced the call for $15 an hour and polls show the demands resonate with the broader public. These trends all bode well for the future pay prospects of low-wage workers. But for now, at least, millions are still waiting on that raise.

Average Hourly Earnings of All Private Employees (Seasonally Adjusted) | FindTheData

Martie Hill, 57, supports herself and her 15-year-old grandson on two home-care jobs, working 51 hours a week. She says she recently asked for a raise at the one job that pays $9.50 an hour. “What they said was, 'Not at this time.'”

It was frustrating, says Hill, who resides in the Atlanta area. “Just to survive, it takes working this many hours,” she says. “I just want fair wages and not to have to work two jobs.”

Give It Some More Time

Ruth Milkman, a labor expert at the City University of New York's Graduate Center, says the movement has had a clear impact on wages, even if it isn’t obvious yet. That’s because what are arguably the Fight for 15’s most significant achievements -- the approval of modest minimum-wage hikes in more than a dozen states in addition to the more ambitious ones on the municipal level -- are still being phased in and have not had time to fully take effect.

Millions in Los Angeles, for instance, will not be earning a $15 hourly wage until 2020. Today they’re still earning the California minimum of $9. Employers in San Francisco, meanwhile, do not have to make the transition to $15 until 2018; $12.25 suffices for now. And Seattle won’t see $15 wages until 2018 or 2019; the hourly pay floor today stands at $11. Other more modest phase-ins are also taking place in Washington, D.C., Oakland, California, and Chicago.

The lag reverberates beyond city borders, too. Since all of these cities have yet to adopt the dramatically higher pay thresholds, employers in the surrounding metropolitan areas aren’t feeling competitive pressure to keep up. But “if you look in another year or two," says Milkman, "the impact will be there."

Fast-food Workers Salaries by State | StartClass

Another limited batch of low-wage workers have, in fact, seen some gains. Some of the major private-sector employers -- retailers Wal-Mart, Target and TJX, which owns T.J. Maxx and Marshall’s, in addition to corporate-owned McDonald’s stores -- have all increased pay for their workers. Like McDonald's, the retail companies have insisted the new pay floors, none of which exceed the hourly rate of $9 today, were driven by business concerns. Milkman, though, interprets the moves as responses to political pressure that the Fight for 15 helped generate.

Even so, she acknowledges that the movement’s impact is “spotty.”

“There are certain groups that are benefiting, but not everybody,” she says.

Department store cashiers and fry cooks in St. Louis, for instance, can look forward to $11 wages by 2018. Not so in New Orleans. Like Oklahoma City and New York City, state regulations block the Big Easy from raising pay on its own.

What Next?

Hill’s boss may not have given her a raise when she asked, but she’s hoping to get one by different means -- forming a union. That is, after all, the second half of the movement’s slogan, "15 and a union."

Last December, Hill was watching local news coverage of a protest in McDonald’s. “I went on the Internet, put in Fight for 15, it came up, and I filled out a card,” she said, sharing her address and occupation online. Two days later, an organizer from the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), which heavily funds the protests, showed up at her door. Hill is now part of an organizing drive at one of her employers. She says she’s never been part of a union before.

“It was exciting to hear the information because it was what I was looking for,” she recalls. “I said there’s gotta be something that can be done, all of these hours, no overtime pay, there’s gotta be more people out there like me.”

The SEIU has made some inroads organizing home-care agencies like Hill’s, framing the efforts as part of the same fight to boost fast-food worker pay and lift wage floors in urban areas. And union contracts, while they can take a considerable amount of time to achieve, tend to produce meaningful wage gains. (Union members earned almost 30 percent more than their non-union counterparts last year, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.)

Still, full-scale unionization of the fast-food industry remains elusive, according to Nelson Lichtenstein, a labor history professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara. Corporations like McDonald’s “have the tools to prevent unionization. They can prevent it and they’d just rather not have a collective bargaining agreement” -- something that imposes additional expenses.

Milkman, the professor from CUNY, credits the movement with changing “the national conversation about minimum wages,” riding a wave of frustration about economic inequality that dates back to Occupy Wall Street: “They’ve upped the ante significantly," he says. "Before the campaign began, the talk was about $11 an hour. Now it’s $15 an hour.”

That could pay dividends if Congress ever decides to raise the federal minimum wage. Last week, the Democratic National Committee put the demand for a $15 pay floor into the party platform. And millions of workers are in line for substantial pay hikes in the next five years. Even if it’s limited in scope, Milkman says, that is no small achievement.