Terrance Wise has two jobs in Kansas City—one at a burger joint, a second at a pizza restaurant—but he says his paychecks aren't enough to buy shoes for his three daughters and insure his 15-year-old car. So he decided to draw attention to his plight: He walked off work in protest.
Wise was among a few thousand fast-food workers in seven cities, including New York, Chicago and Detroit, who took to the streets last week, carrying "Strike" and "Supersize Our Wages" signs in front of McDonalds, Wendy's, Burger King and other restaurants. They demanded better pay, the right to unionize and a more than doubling of the federal minimum hourly wage from $7.25 to $15.
"We work hard for companies that are making millions," the 34-year-old Wise says, adding that he lost his home last year, unable to make mortgage payments despite working about 50-hour weeks at Pizza Hut and Burger King. "We're not asking for the world. We want to make enough to make a decent living. We deserve better. If they respect us and pay us and treat us right, it'll lift up the whole economy."
These one-day protests, which also took place in St. Louis, Milwaukee and Flint, Mich., come amid calls from the White House, some members of Congress and economists to raise the federal minimum wage, which was last increased in 2009. Most of the proposals, though, seek a more modest rise than those urged by fast-food workers. President Barack Obama wants to boost the hourly wage to $9. And in July, more than 100 economists signed a petition supporting a bill sponsored by a Florida congressman that would hike it to $10.50 an hour.
The restaurant industry argues that a $15 hourly wage could lead to businesses closings and fewer jobs. It also notes the cost of living varies greatly around the country and many states have higher minimum wages than the federal rate. (Eighteen states and the District of Columbia, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.)
The Employment Policies Institute, which receives some funding from the industry, ran a full-page ad last week in USA Today, warning of another potential consequence: It showed the uniform of a fast-food worker with an iPad face, saying the wage increase could result in employees being replaced with automation, such as touch-screen ordering.
So at a time when the economy is growing steadily but slowly and about 11.5 million people are unemployed — nearly double the level before the Great Recession — how likely is it Congress will increase the minimum wage? And have these protests done any good?
The answers depend on whom you ask.
"They're very effective," says U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison, a Minnesota Democrat and co-chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus. "They've brought attention to appalling conditions with workers putting in very long hours ... and not making enough money to survive. This I think is scandal. .. We believe it's essential to be paid livable wages. We know the companies can afford it. These are highly profitable businesses. It would be good not just for the family budget but for the national budget."
Ellison's caucus launched a national "Raise Up America" campaign this summer that has partnered with fast-food workers and others in low-wage industries to highlight the call for better salaries. The congressman says he's not deterred by likely resistance in the GOP-dominated House.
"Remember, things that don't look possible become possible if people advocate for them," he says, adding that in 1955 someone was probably saying "they're never going to end segregation. ... Sometimes these things catch on. I think the thing to do is keep on pushing, keep on talking. ... That's how we win."
But others are more skeptical and think if there is a winner, it's unions. The Service Employees International Union is providing financial support and staff to help train organizers for this campaign.
These protests show unions "still can appeal to and speak for workers who are on the fringes of the workforce — the less skilled, the part-timers and the immigrant workers," Gary Chaison, professor of industrial relations at Clark University in Massachusetts, wrote in an email.
These still are hard times, people are happy to be employed and the political climate in the House is not conducive for an increase, he adds. "The demonstrations are street theater and the rehabilitation of the image of American unions, but it's not going to drive new minimum wage policy," he wrote.
Scott DeFife, executive vice president of the National Restaurant Association, calls the protests a campaign "to disparage the industry," which he says operates on a tight profit margin. Doubling wages, he says, "would definitely have an impact on the creation of new jobs." He says it would be especially harmful for young people, for whom the jobless rate in some communities is already in the double digits.
Some fast food companies responded to the protests by saying they respect the rights of their workers.
And some who walked out used the media spotlight to talk openly about their financial struggles.
Kareem Sparks, a 30-year-old father of two boys, 6 and 12, was laid off in 2011 from a $17.50-an-hour city job in New York. His unemployment benefits ran out and he turned to food pantries. Five months ago, he found work at McDonald's.
"I'm grateful they gave me an opportunity to feed my family and put food on the table, but it's not enough," he says. Sparks supplements his income with a second job as a security guard, earning about $8 an hour. Together, he says, he brings home about $1,000-$1,100 every two weeks and needs food stamps to survive.
"It's horrible to know when I pick up my (McDonalds) check, it's going to be less than $200," he says. "You spend all your money in one store and go to sleep broke. It's not fair. ... Some people get their checks and don't come back to work."
The average hourly salary for fast-food workers was $9.00 in May 2012, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The average age for these workers is 29 years old; for women, it's 32, according to the bureau. The restaurant association says its own analysis of Census data found that slightly more than 25 percent of fast-food workers are heads of households.
Both sides in the fight over the minimum wage cite numerous studies to buttress their arguments about whether a raise would be harmful.
The petition signed by the economists says that for decades, research has "found that no significant effects on employment opportunities result when the minimum wage rises in reasonable increments." The economists also note that minimum-wage workers employed full time for the entire year earn $15,080, almost 20 percent below the poverty level for a family of three.
But Michael Saltsman, research director at the Employment Policies Institute, cites another study that he says found raising the minimum wage was counterproductive — with more people losing than gaining because hours were reduced and jobs were cut.
Tessie Harrell, one of the workers in the middle of this academic debate, walked off her job in protest last week.
As a Burger King manager in Milwaukee, Harrell, 34, has to stretch her $8.25 hourly salary to support five children (a sixth lives on her own). They live in a two-bedroom apartment. Her mother helped out financially and with child care, but she has since moved to a nursing home.
"It's not like we're teens working for a pair of shoes or a cell phone," Harrell says. "We're grown adults who can't find better jobs."
She would like to see something come from the protests, a wage improvement, even if it's not $15 an hour.
"I hope it works," she says. "We're just trying to survive and build a life for our children."