How One Protest Turned Into a Fast-Food-Worker Movement

Over the past two years the strikes that started in New York City have spread across the country.

Protesters march outside McDonald's in Los Angeles, California, December 5, 2013. (Photo: Lucy Nicholson/Reuters)

Apr 4, 2014· 4 MIN READ
Kristina Bravo is Assistant Editor at TakePart.

Two years ago, Brooklyn-based nonprofit New York Communities for Change asked residents about housing issues in the city. Staffers heard many stories: While some people spoke of barely being able to pay rent, others were living in the backseats of cars or homeless shelters, all while raising kids. The organizers noticed one commonality: Many of the people they spoke with relied on minimum wage paychecks earned from working part-time hours at fast-food chains.

“So we started talking to workers at fast-food places and asking them if they wanted to organize for higher pay,” New York Communities for Change’s Jonathan Westin said in an emailed statement. “There was not a worker we talked to who wouldn’t sign onto the campaign.”

The movement became known as Fast Food Forward. It held its first citywide protest in 2012, and the movement has since spread across the country. The federal minimum wage still stagnates at $7.25 per hour, a rate that hasn’t budged since 2009. But a lot of progress has been made on the state level. As of Jan. 1, 2014, twenty-one states exceed the federal minimum wage; others are expected to follow suit. Here’s a look back at the American fast-food workers’ fight for livable pay.

Nov. 29, 2012: A week after Black Friday protests at 1,000 Walmart stores, an early-morning rally starts at a McDonald’s in New York City. According to NYCC, it deployed 200 demonstrators at dozens of locations of McDonald’s, Taco Bell, Wendy’s, Burger King, and other chains in the city in an effort to increase their base wage from the state’s $7.25 minimum to $15. The New York Times calls it “the biggest wave of job actions in the history of America’s fast-food industry.”

Feb. 12, 2013: President Obama calls for a $9-an-hour federal minimum wage. “Here’s an idea that Governor Romney and I actually agreed on last year: Let’s tie the minimum wage to the cost of living, so that it finally becomes a wage you can live on.”

(Photo: Carlo Allegri/Reuters)

March 5, 2013: Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, and Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., introduce the Fair Minimum Wage Act of 2013, which proposes a federal minimum wage of $10.10 an hour.

March 15, 2013: House Republicans unanimously vote against the wage increase.

April 4, 2013: About 400 of New York City’s fast-food workers walk off the job, doubling Fast Food Forward’s first effort. Organizers staged the strike on the 45th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination, which happened while he was supporting a sanitation labor strike in Memphis.

April 24, 2013: McDonald’s and Dunkin’ Donuts employees stream into downtown Chicago in protest of Illinois’ $8.25 minimum wage. Hundreds of others, including low-wage retail workers, join their “Fight for $15” campaign.

May 89, 2013: Alternative workers’ group St. Louis Organizing Committee leads a campaign called “STL Can’t Survive on $7.35.” Employees walk out of 30 fast-food franchises demanding wage increases and the right to form a union without retaliation.

May 10, 2013: More than 400 Detroit workers protest in the first fast-food-worker action in a right-to-work state. Despite Michigan’s new antilabor laws, the walkout echoes the strong history of Detroit’s auto unions.

(Photo: Noah Berger/Reuters)

May 30, 2013: The seventh major fast-food walkout in two months hits Seattle. Organizers across the nation say that worker wages and conditions are improving. “They’re getting more pay and hours and better scheduling, and are feeling emboldened to speak up on the job,” a Missouri Jobs for Justice organizer tells The Huffington Post.

June 27, 2013: A study reveals that top restaurant CEOs earned 788 times the minimum wage in 2012. While the typical fast-food head honcho made almost $12 million, an average full-time minimum wage worker took home $15,080 for the entire year.

July 15, 2013: McDonald’s launches a website to help employees learn “Practical Money Skills.” It provides a sample monthly budget that includes a line for a second job and underestimates expenses such as rent ($600) and health insurance ($20). No part of the budget is allocated for food.

(Photo courtesy

Aug. 29, 2013: A month after the seven-city wave of work stoppages in the Midwest and New York, strikes hit about 50 cities across the nation in a 24-hour span.

Oct. 15, 2013: A new report indicates that every year, Americans pay $7 billion in taxes for the public assistance programs used by 53 percent of fast-food workers. This roughly equals profits earned by the seven biggest fast-food companies in 2012.

Oct. 16, 2013: Street artist Banksy joins industry critics. The artist's fiberglass statue of Ronald McDonald having his shoes shined by a real person finds its way on a sidewalk outside a South Bronx McDonald’s. The supplementary audio commentary calls the piece “a critique of the heavy labor required to sustain the polished image of a megacorporation.”

(Photo: Carlo Allegri/Reuters)

Oct. 23, 2013: Labor activists release a 15-minute recording of a McDonald’s employee asking a McResources hotline staffer for financial help. The staffer gives her a public assistance number she can call to ask about food stamps and Medicaid.

Nov. 7, 2013: President Obama announces his support for legislation that would increase the federal minimum wage from $7.25 to $10.10 per hour.

Dec. 5, 2013: Fast-food workers rally in 100 U.S. cities.

Dec. 19, 2013: After adjusting for inflation, research finds that raising the federal minimum wage to $10.10 would roughly bring it back to the value it held in the 1960s. The study also claims that the raise would boost the country’s GDP by $22 billion.

Jan. 1, 2014: The minimum wage increases in 13 states. Washington, D.C., and 11 more states are expected to consider an increase in 2014.

Jan. 28, 2014: For the second consecutive year, President Obama calls for a federal minimum wage increase in his State of the Union address, this time to $10.10 an hour.

Feb. 18, 2014: The Congressional Budget Office estimates that the president's and Democrats’ proposed raise could result in the loss of 500,000 jobs by 2016.

March 1213, 2014: Workers file class action lawsuits against McDonald’s in California, Michigan, and New York, claiming wage theft. Managers are allegedly forced to make employees work off the clock and adjust time cards to avoid paying them full earned wages, including overtime hours.

March 26, 2014: Connecticut becomes the first state to pass legislation that would raise its minimum wage to $10.10 an hour by 2017.

March 28, 2014: The 13 states that increased their minimum wage in the beginning of 2014 boosted their employment rates in January and February, according to research. States that didn’t saw no notable change.