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Akst: Focusing on a fast food nation

Published: Friday, Aug. 2, 2013 5:30 a.m. CDT

Biggie-size this: Fast food workers in several U.S. cities, including Chicago, went on a one-day strike Monday, hoping to draw attention to a harsh reality.

That harsh reality is that one cannot live in modern America earning on minimum wage, with negligible benefits and irregular schedules.

The campaign began in New York City, and has been helped by Fast Food Forward, a New York City-based advocacy group of fast food workers. Strikers called for a $15 an hour minimum wage and the right to unionize without fear of reprisal.

One interesting thing about the strike was its duration. As Salon.com noted, nobody expects fast food workers to change the tide in a day or even with an extended strike. We love our Whoppers that much, and there are just that many desperate, unemployed people.

The strike was one day to draw attention while minimizing the threat of being fired.

Those worries were unfounded, said honchos and spokespeople for Wendy’s, Burger King, Taco Bell, KFC, Domino’s and other restaurant chains. They voiced respect for their workers (in other words, “Blah blah blah”) while being quick to note that the majority of stores are owned/operated by individual franchisees.

McDonald’s, according to CBSNews.com, referred commentary to the National Restaurant Association. The association’s Scott DeFefife said doubling the minimum wage would have “significant effect on the private sector’s ability to create jobs, especially those typically filled by first-time workers and teens.”

Congress voted to raise the federal minimum wage to $7.25 in 2007. Recently, President Barack Obama called for the minimum wage to go to $9 an hour, but that won’t happen. Some states set minimum wage above the federal standard. The minimum hourly pay in Illinois is $8.25.

In June, the sector added 75,000 jobs, according to Bureau of Labor Statistics data. Fast-food cooks make $9.02 an hour, or about $18,760 a year, on average, as of 2012.

Given the size and impact of the fast food industry ($184 billion in total revenue in more than 300,000 restaurants employing 3.9 million people in 2010, according to Statista Inc., an Internet statistics portal), I’m surprised at how few people I’ve met have ever worked in fast food.

But I have. I worked at Wendy’s during the mid-1980s. They treated me well, and because several coworkers were fellow broke college students, the camaraderie was good.

Still, I now refer to it as “doing time” at Wendy’s. Hard time. Why?

Maybe it was the early mornings in which I pushed hundreds of pounds of raw meat through a large, loud machine to produce square patties.

Maybe it was because I was there during the famous “Where’s the Beef?” ad campaign. On wintry nights, I would open the north-facing drive-through window to drunk cowboys who thought it hilarious to roll up and belch, “Hay, where’s the beef?!” (The answer I never gave was, “I have your beef right here, sir.”)

Maybe it was the constant noise, heat, smell and pressure. Maybe it was the grease burns and cuts. Maybe it was being friendly to people who treated me like crap. Maybe it was worrying about unstable/intoxicated customers. I definitely remember the guy who ordered a triple hamburger – raw – and looked as though he’d kill me when I checked to make sure I heard him correctly.

I have no illusions the minimum wage will be realistic soon, to say nothing of benefits. And, I have occasionally complained about fast food products and service.

But I stand with those fighting for better working conditions.

• Jason Akst teaches journalism and public relations at Northern Illinois University. You can reach him at jasondakst@gmail.com or follow him on Twitter (@jasonakst).

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