On April Fool’s Day, McDonald’s Corporation offered a pay increase next July to workers in the restaurants it owns in the United States.
The company, fighting to improve its battered image, may not have intended the move to be a joke. But in the end, many workers saw the welcome boost in pay and benefits as largely a fraud perpetrated on the public as well as on fast food workers. They say the timing indicated that McDonald’s was trying to undercut a growing workers’ movement that has called for a large-scale demonstration for $15 per hour wages and a union for all fast food workers on April 15.
The Fight For $15 has mobilized tens of thousands of fast food workers since it first began two-and-a-half years ago, demanding a pay increase and the right to form a union without retaliation. It has won support from a broad swath of the public for all fast food workers—and increasingly for other low-wage workers.
Some commentators describe McDonald’s pay raise as a result of a tight job market, and others imply that McDonald’s good will and smart management are responsible. But until recently, the company’s management insisted that their burger empire could not pay more. Now, it apparently is willing to make some financial concessions, hoping that their distraction can help them avoid acceding to a formal union collective bargaining agreement.
But the fast food movement may be able to wield power and win improvements without the usual legal framework. It may, at least for some time, demonstrate a different way of workers organizing to win victories through coordinated direct action supported by a broad social movement.
Some workers will undoubtedly will feel grateful for their higher pay, but more workers will likely conclude that putting the heat on their employer can win victories—and that they need more such victories to live decently. “Raising wages only a little for a small number of workers is just a PR stunt,” McDonald’s worker Kwanza Brooks says.
The raise only applies to the 1,500 corporate-owned restaurants in the U.S., less than 10 percent of the 900,000 U.S. McDonald’s workers in the total of 14,350 stores distributed nationwide. Most McDonald’s restaurants are operated as franchises extended to small or medium-sized business operators but closely controlled by the corporate franchisor.
The company will boost pay to levels of $1 above the locally effective minimum wage in July—an average of approximately $10 an hour, according to press reports, but in many instances workers’ pay could still be as low as $8,25 an hour, according to Fight For Fifteen. Whatever the precise figure, it will be worth less than the peak minimum wage of the late 1960s, which would now be worth $10.90 if inflation were taken into account.
In addition, after a year’s employment, corporate McDonald’s workers will be able to take five days of paid time off per year. Full- or part-time workers from corporate or franchised restaurants will be eligible for aid to finish high school or take post-secondary classes.
The increase that McDonald’s announced with much fanfare is only slightly higher than the gain fast food workers made during the last calendar year, about 3.9 percent. It still left them heavily dependent on taxpayer-subsidized food, shelter, health care and other needs and far short of a living wage for a workforce that increasingly depends on the fastest-growing occupations—including personal care aides, retail salespersons, home health aides, food workers, and janitors who work for similar wages.
The decline of the official unemployment rate exaggerates the labor market pressure for higher wages, because there has also been a sharp decline in the rate of participation in the labor market—that is, the number of people who would still like to work if they thought jobs were available has grown sharply during the Great Recession. The organized actions of workers at Walmart and McDonald’s, both of which are leading companies in their businesses, most likely accounts for the critical pressure on those corporations to raise wages.
Wages have not matched the growth of productivity. If the minimum wage had kept pace with increases in productivity since the minimum wage reached its highest level in real, inflation-adjusted terms in the late 1960s, the federal minimum wage today would be somewhere in the range of $16 to $22 an hour.
The franchise operators do not have to follow the corporate lead on pay, but they will be under considerable pressure to do so. On the other hand, the corporate executives also may hope that the franchisees don’t adopt their pattern. The corporation made clear from its announcement that it wants to use their pay hikes as evidence that they operate separately from the franchisees and are not joint employers, as the National Labor Relations Board’s general counsel has recently argued. If the corporation is a joint employer, it would share responsibility with the franchise operator for negotiating contracts with any union fast food workers might form and for abiding by workplace regulations.
As workers across the country responded in the streets on Thursday to McDonald’s announcement, one tweet read: “Hey, McDonald’s: We Said $15 and a Union for Everybody. See You on April 15.” The meaning seemed clear enough—even for Ronald McDonald.