Wise is a crew member in the fast food industry, and puts in around 25 hours a week at Burger King and about the same amount at Pizza Hut. His salary varies from $7.47 an hour at Pizza Hut (which is owned by Yum Brands) to $9.30 an hour at Burger King. Workers throughout the fast food industry regularly earn hourly wages close to the federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour. (His fiancee, he says, works low-wage jobs in the retail industry.)
On Monday, Wise joined the estimated 160 fast food workers who walked out on their jobs in the Kansas City area, according to local reports. Hundreds of workers also walked off their jobs in New York and St. Louis. At rallies in Kansas City, workers and activists screamed slogans like, "Hey, hey, ho, ho, poverty wages got to go." The activism is part of a seven city-campaign over the following four days in which fast food workers are planning similar activities. Organizing by workers in Kansas City, in addition to similar plans for later in the week in Flint, Mich., mark the first time in recent memory that these two Midwestern cities are being targeted by striking fast food workers.
The other five cities (New York, Chicago, St. Louis, Detroit, and Milwaukee) on the organizers' agenda already have seen rounds of protests since fast food workers began rallying for improved conditions starting in November in New York. (See map below.) Protest organizers, which include the Service Employees International Union and local affiliates, expect the campaign to mark the largest coordinated strike in industry history with thousands of workers taking part. The workers are calling for a doubling of the minimum wage to $15, as well as the granting of full-time benefits for workers.
For Wise, who says that he's been working in the fast food and retail industries for a total of 18 years, the activism is a long time coming. "For years, I have thought, why don't workers in this industry have a voice? I can't do this alone," he told AOL Jobs in an interview. "But when I saw a movement spread across the country, I thought, 'Sign me up.' "
In speaking to AOL Jobs, Wise said that he has seen working conditions get worse over the course of his career. When he first began working in fast food at Taco Bell (which is also owned by Yum Brands) he said that he'd regularly find jobs that came with 50-hour-a-week schedules. But now managers are slashing workers' hours to below 30 per week, in what he says is known by workers as the "Obama dodge." (Under the Affordable Care Act, also known as "Obamacare," employers are only required to provide health insurance for part-time workers once they work more than 30 hours a week.)
Yum Brands has not responded to a request from AOL Jobs for an interview. But an unsigned email from the Burger King media relations team said that franchisees are responsible for hiring and schedules at their branches. The email also said that the company provides "an entry point into the workforce for millions of Americans" and provides "compensation and benefits that are consistent with the "industry." And in speaking to Salon.com, the vice president of Domino's Pizza, Tim McIntyre, said via email, "Opportunity exists for everyone in our system who's willing to work hard and focus on rising to the next level."
That defense of the wage model at fast food companies, however, was contradicted by a report released last week by the left-leaning National Employment Law Project. As AOL Jobs reported, NELP's study found that managerial jobs comprise just 2.2 percent of all positions in the fast food sector. As a result, NELP concluded, workers have "virtually no chance of advancement" in the field.
During his nearly two decades of fast food work, Wise says that his own career advancement has been stymied. He began working in the field at age 15, hoping that he could save money to study journalism. But he's been unable to find time to attend college, and picked up work as a Burger King crew member in 2005. He said that he was appointed as an assistant branch manager in 2008, but he was passed over for higher management positions. Yet, he said, he often had to teach his new bosses how to manage the restaurant. And so out of frustration, he briefly quit three years ago, but had to return to try and earn money for his family.
In the lead-up to the Monday protest, Wise said that his managers at Burger King tried to discourage workers from participating. "I hope you're not part of these strikes because I know you're smarter than that," he claimed his managers, whom he preferred not to name, said to him. (Local media reports indicate that no arrests were made during the Monday protests.)
Fast food companies have also been scrutinized of late for actions taken on the national level. As AOL Jobs reported, McDonald's budgeting website was created to to help its workers get "on track." But with an average worker with one child making roughly $1,105 from their fast food job a month, the worker is likely to fall into $1,548 of debt each month, even if he or she picks up a second job.
In recent years, however, the management at fast food companies has seen their own fortunes increase. As The New York Times reported on Sunday, the median pay for chief executives at the nation's top corporations increased 16 percent in the past year alone, according to Equilar, an executive compensation analysis firm. In the fast food field alone, CEOs are making as much as 819 times as much as the on-the-ground workers at their company.
And so for Wise, "it's a clear-cut case" that "people should stand up and fight, even if a lot of people fear big businesses and making the bosses angry," he said. "But you just never run into anyone in this industry who says they're doing just fine."
The map was created by Mariya Pylayev and Carla Astudillo, a freelance data visualization journalist. AOL Jobs will continue to update the map above as more strikes happen.
*Events marked with the #RaiseTheWage hashtag were part of the July 24 National Day of Action, a coalition that staged rallies and walkouts in over 20 cities nationwide. The actions were loosely focused on all low-wage earners, including those in the fast food and retail sectors. Because the map tracks fast food-related activity, AOL Jobs chose to only include actions that explicitly involved that industry.
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