“We are cooks and cashiers who work behind the company’s counters, grills and fryers across the country,” the protesters said in a letter they delivered to the company ahead of its annual shareholder meeting Thursday. “And we are calling on McDonald’s to use its massive power and wealth to lift up people of color and our communities rather than keep us locked in poverty.”
The letter said low pay disproportionately hurts employees of color, citing the National Employment Law Project, an advocacy group, which found that 54 percent of black workers and 60 percent of Hispanic workers nationwide earn less than $15 hourly, compared with 36 percent of white workers.
McDonald's said in a statement that it will invest $150 million over the next five years into helping employees cover college tuition.
"We also lowered eligibility requirements, making the program more accessible," spokeswoman Terri Hickey said in an email. "These enhancements underscore McDonald’s and its independent franchisees’ commitment to providing jobs that fit around the lives of restaurant employees so they may pursue their education and career ambitions.”
In 2015, McDonald’s pledged to pay all employees at the roughly 1,500 stores it directly controls in the United States at least $1 an hour above the local minimum wage. (The raises were a one-time deal.)
But most of the approximately 14,000 stores in the country are run by franchisees who were not bound by that decision.
Matt Haller, senior vice president of government relations and public affairs at the International Franchise Association, a trade group, said it was impractical for McDonald's to demand that franchisees meet a minimum pay standard because they operate like small-business owners.
Such a move would elevate the cost of opening the stores, he said, and "take away opportunities for people who have decided to run them."
Unhappy employees, he added, can leave for higher pay in this increasingly tight labor market.
“If you are a franchisee and you’re not paying a competitive wage,” he said, “those employees are free to move and find a better opportunity for themselves.”
So the workers say they’re taking the matter into the streets, marching through downtown Chicago on Monday and then caravaning to the Illinois statehouse in Springfield.
Terrence Wise, a 38-year-old McDonald’s employee at an individually owned store in Kansas City, Mo., said he works 40-hour weeks for the chain and still must rely on food stamps to feed his three teenage daughters. Over the past four years, his pay has crept up from $7.50 an hour as a cook to $9.40 as a manager.
A $15 hourly wage, Wise said, would transform his life.
“I would not all of a sudden have a beachfront home in Florida,” he said, speaking on the phone from Chicago. “Let’s be real. I could pay my bills. I wouldn’t have to skip meals. I could buy my kids new shoes more than once every two years.”