By Tiffany Hsu
Fast-food workers, union organizers and community supporters rallied nationwide for higher pay Thursday amid criticism from the restaurant industry that the campaign was "part of an ongoing effort to replace fact with fiction while ignoring simple truths."
The first protest in Southern California launched at 6 a.m. at a McDonald's in Florence, as more than 100 people gathered under a still-dark sky with signs and megaphones.
"Keep your burgers, keep your fries, make our wages super-sized," they chanted, swaddled against the chill in beanies and hoodies. They waved posters that read "Better Pay, Better LA."
Baldwin Hills resident Keyana McDowell, 20, held a sign that said, in orange paint, "on strike to lift my family up." The cashier and drive-through operator at a Sawtelle McDonald's said she earns $8 an hour working some seven hours a day.
"As prices for food, clothing and gas is going up, we work so hard for just a little bit of money," McDowell said. "The least they could do is pay us something we can be proud of."
The endeavor continued past noon, when another crowd of people congregated outside a McDonald's in Silver Lake. Many members of the throng were repeat participants from the morning's protest. An informal poll showed roughly as many organizers and supporters as workers.
The protests are a continuation of rallies held this summer to raise support for a $15-an-hour minimum wage for quick-service workers. Activists are also agitating for the right to unionize and the ability to strike without retaliation from employers.
Before and during the Black Friday shopping bonanza last week, Wal-Mart workers and their sympathizers rallied with similar demands.
Several protesting workers said they were earning about $8 an hour. But in a statement, the National Council of Chain Restaurants demurred.
"It is a well studied and accepted fact that beyond teenagers and some part-timers, the vast majority of restaurant workers make more than the starting wage," said Rob Green, the group's executive director.
He referred to chain restaurants as "a collection of small businesses in local communities around the country," and said that many are "facing stiff economic head winds resulting from laws like the Affordable Care Act and anti-competitive rules and regulations that penalize business and entrepreneurs alike."
Green called Thursday's protests, which organizers said would hit restaurants in 100 cities, "choreographed street theater directed by Big Labor" that "cannot replace thoughtful enactment of sound economic policies which will actually spur capital investment and create jobs."
Sabrina Schaeffer, executive director of the Independent Women's Forum, argued that raising the minimum wage "could backfire on those workers by reducing employment opportunities."
"Most franchises operate on very small margins," she said. "That's why we have recently seen fast-food restaurants react to new healthcare mandates by reducing their workforce and cutting back workers' hours."
This week, the right-leaning Employment Policies Institute said it analyzed Census Bureau data from January 2012 through October 2013, focusing on fast-food workers who would be affected by a wage increase to $15 an hour — approximately 2.5 million workers, according to the group.
EPI concluded — conservatively, it said — that 460,000 jobs would be lost in the quick-service industry if a $15-an-hour wage becomes a reality. California would lose more than 50,000 jobs, the most of any state, EPI said.
Food expert Michael Pollan, the author of "The Omnivore's Dilemma," was sympathetic to protesting workers. Pollan accused fast-food giants of "a kind of reverse Fordism" in an email sent earlier Thursday to members of advocacy group MoveOn.org.
"Instead of paying workers well enough so that they can afford good, honestly priced products — as Henry Ford endeavored to do so that his workers might afford to buy his cars — we pay them so little that the only food they can afford is junk food destructive of their health and the environment's," Pollan wrote.