Terrance Wise has two jobs in Kansas City — one at a burger joint, the second at a pizza restaurant — but he says his paychecks aren't enough to buy shoes for his three daughters and insure his 15-year-old car. So he decided to draw attention to his plight: He walked off work in protest.
Wise was among a few thousand fast-food workers in seven cities, including New York, Chicago, Detroit, St. Louis, Milwaukee and Flint, Mich., who took to the streets last week, carrying "Strike" and "Supersize Our Wages" signs in front of McDonalds, Wendy's, Burger King and other restaurants. They demanded better pay, the right to unionize and a more than doubling of the federal minimum hourly wage from $7.25 to $15.
"We work hard for companies that are making millions," the 34-year-old Wise says, adding that he lost his home last year, unable to make mortgage payments despite working about 50-hour weeks at Pizza Hut and Burger King. "We're not asking for the world. We want to make enough to make a decent living. We deserve better. If they respect us and pay us and treat us right, it'll lift up the whole economy."
President Barack Obama wants to boost the hourly wage more modestly, to $9. In July, more than 100 economists signed a petition supporting a bill sponsored by a Florida congressman that would hike it to $10.50 an hour.
So at a time when the economy is growing steadily but slowly and about 11.5 million people are unemployed — nearly double the level before the Great Recession — how likely is it Congress will increase the minimum wage? And have these protests done any good?
"They're very effective," says U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison, a Minnesota Democrat and co-chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus. "They've brought attention to appalling conditions with workers putting in very long hours ... and not making enough money to survive. This I think is scandal.
"Remember, things that don't look possible become possible if people advocate for them," he says, adding that in 1955 someone was probably saying "they're never going to end segregation."
But others are more skeptical and think if there is a winner, it's unions. The Service Employees International Union is providing financial support and staff to help train organizers for this campaign.
These protests show unions "still can appeal to and speak for workers who are on the fringes of the workforce — the less skilled, the part-timers and the immigrant workers," Gary Chaison, professor of industrial relations at Clark University in Massachusetts, wrote in an email.