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McDonald’s surrenders as $15 hourly minimum wage gains steam

Demonstrators rally for $15 an hour outside a Chicago McDonald's last year. Scott Olson/Getty Images

McDonald’s decision last week to put an end to its relentless opposition to minimum wage increases was “probably the biggest paradigm shift” at the fast-food giant in two decades, according to a tweet by an outspoken company franchisee.

While it is big news that the company will no longer use its considerable power and deep pockets to lobby against minimum wage increases, McDonald’s has much work to do to become the “progressive burger company” it aspires to be.

OPINION

The announcement last Tuesday, in a letter to the National Restaurant Association, is indeed a big break from McDonald’s past practice, but it doesn’t raise wages for anyone. It doesn’t cost the company a dime. In fact, it will actually save them money — all the cash they spend each year supporting efforts by the National Restaurant Association and others to block increases for America’s lowest-paid workers.

There’s no doubt the company’s decision is a direct response to the thousands and thousands of McDonald’s workers who’ve taken to the streets, gone on strike and even gotten arrested to further their fight for $15 an hour and a union. The move comes at a time when McDonald’s opposition to minimum wage increases has clearly become out of step with both the politics around wages and the actions of companies across the country.

More than 200 Democrats in the House of Representatives have signed on to cosponsor a federal $15 an hour bill. A poll released Thursday shows that two-thirds of voters in battleground congressional districts support $15. Major companies like CostcoTarget and even Amazon and Disney are among scores of employers voluntarily moving to $15 an hour.

Seven years ago, when 200 fast-food workers walked off their jobs demanding $15 and the right to form a union, launching the Fight for $15 and Union, just about everyone thought they were wildly ambitious, at best. But today more than 24 million workers have won more than $70 billion in raises as a result of the campaign. Six states plus Washington, DC passed $15 an hour minimums, including, last week, Maryland, and others are racing to follow suit. Nearly 30 percent of U.S. workers are covered by a $15/hour law.

It’s become clear that $15 is the absolute minimum workers anywhere in the country need to support their families. New data show that if the minimum wage grew at the same rate as Wall Street bonuses, it would actually be $33 an hour.

If McDonald’s is to be applauded now, it is for its ability, finally, to understand that its relentless opposition to minimum wage increases had become untenable in today’s America. The politics of wages in the country have completely shifted in the past seven years, and McDonald’s has been too slow to recognize that.

And it still has far to go. Its announcement last week doesn’t change the lives of any of 750,000 workers across the US. More than 52 percent of fast-food workers have to supplement their low pay by relying on public assistance to get by. Because of its low wages, McDonald’s workers alone cost taxpayers more than $1 billion a year, according to one study.

And low pay isn’t the only problem for its employees. McDonald’s has fought ferociously, and illegally, against its workers’ efforts to join together in a union. It’s fought feverishly to avoid being designated a so-called joint employer—a label that would force it to take responsibility for its millions of employees instead of foisting that accountability solely onto its franchisees. It’s been accused of wage theft. And, in a gross dereliction of duty, it’s failed to address widespread claims by its workers of sexual harassment on the job.

If McDonald’s truly wants to be a “progressive burger company,” it should pay its workers $15 an hour and recognize and respect their right to form a union. It should not only cease lobbying against minimum wage increases, but use its clout to push for them — beginning with the $15-an-hour bill that has wide support in the House.

In response to McDonald’s decision last week, its workers said they would keep marching, striking and speaking out until they win the $15 and union rights they’ve demanded since Day 1 of their campaign. If McDonald’s really wants to be progressive, if it wants to shift paradigms, it should listen to them.

Christine Owens is executive director of the National Employment Law Project, a workers’ rights organization supported by progressive foundations and labor unions.

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