What's their beef? Striking fast food workers say low wages

New York City Councilman Brad Lander speaks to employees at Wendy's fast-food restaurant during a demonstration outside of one of the restaurants to demand higher pay and the right to form a union on Monday in New York City.
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New York City Councilman Brad Lander speaks to employees at Wendy's fast-food restaurant during a demonstration outside of one of the restaurants to demand higher pay and the right to form a union on Monday in New York City.

You may find yourself waiting longer for McNuggets or a Whopper this week as thousands of workers in seven cities around the country strike for the right to unionize and $15 an hour wages.

Building on the momentum of strikes that began in November in New York City, organizers say dozens of restaurants in New York, Chicago, St. Louis, Milwaukee, Kansas City, Detroit and Flint, Mich., will be affected by waves of worker walkouts over the course of the week.

"These workers need a raise and they need representation in the workplace," said Martin Rafanan, community director for STL735. The acronym stands for "St. Louis Can't Survive on $7.35," referring to Missouri's minimum wage. Rafanan said the group, which plans to strike Monday and Tuesday, hopes to build on a May strike when about 100 workers walked off the job.

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"In this particular set of actions this week, we're expecting to strike 50 stores and between 100 and 200 workers," he said, adding that the response to the May strike was greater than anticipated. The group only expected 40 or 50 workers to walk out. "It ended up being a much bigger thing."

Monday's action could see 500-plus workers at dozens of New York City fast food restaurants abandoning their posts for picket lines, said Jonathan Westin, director of Fast Food Forward and executive director of New York Communities For Change.

At a McDonald's across the street from Yankee Stadium, several dozen people chanted, "We can't survive on $7.25."

In April, 400 fast food employees walked off the job in New York. At twice the size of the group's inaugural walkout in November, local organizers called that event the biggest fast food strike in the country—until now.

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These actions are designed to call attention to "the contradictions between the folks at the top … and the workers themselves living in poverty," Westin said.

Spokespeople from McDonald's and Yum Brands (the parent company of Taco Bell, KFC and Pizza Hut) referred questions to their trade group, the National Restaurant Association.

"The restaurant industry provides opportunities for millions of Americans, women and men from all backgrounds, to move up the ladder and succeed. In addition to providing more than 13 million job opportunities, the industry is one of the best paths to achieving the American dream, with 80 percent of owners and managers having started their careers in entry-level positions," Scott DeFife, the executive vice president for policy and government affairs at the National Restaurant Association, told NBC News via email.

"Restaurants operate on very thin profit margins. Significant additional labor costs can negatively impact a restaurant's ability to hire or maintain jobs. The cost of living varies greatly nationwide, while current proposals aimed at doubling the minimum wage would have a significant effect on the private sector's ability to create jobs, especially those typically filled by first-time workers and teens."

Representatives from other restaurants responded to the walkouts.

"As a corporation, we respect the rights of all workers; however, Burger King Corp. does not make hiring, firing or other employment-related decisions for our franchisees … Burger King restaurants offer compensation and benefits that are consistent with the QSR industry," a company spokesperson said in a statement via email. QSR is industry jargon for quick-service restaurant, or fast food.

Wendy's is "still assessing the situation," company spokesman Bob Bertini said via email. "We have no additional comment."

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This week's actions come on the heels of a much-lambasted budget guide for McDonald's workers that recommended they get a second job and budgeted just $20 a month for health insurance, and a report by the National Employment Law Project showing that the vast majority of fast food positions are dead-end jobs.

Earlier NELP research found that nearly 60 percent of post-recession job creation was for work that pays an hourly wage of $13.83 or less.

An open letter signed by more than 100 economists and published this month by the University of Massachusetts, Amherst's Political Economy Research Institute titled, "Economists in Support of a $10.50 U.S. Minimum Wage," makes the case that raising wages would add just 5 cents to the price of a Big Mac.

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Although fast food jobs are often thought of as work that provides teenagers with spending money, the average age of today's fast food worker is 32, the paper said, which has much grimmer implications. "If a worker today is employed full time for a full 52-week year at a minimum wage job today, she or he is making $15,080. This is 19 percent below the official poverty line for a family of three," the paper said.

—By Martha C. White, NBC News contributor.

—The Associated Press contributed reporting.