Pittsburgh protesters temporarily shut down restaurants

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Three weeks ago, Marcus Scott, 27, of Carrick became Marcus Scott Sr. His fiancee, a waitress, was let go from her job at a South Hills restaurant and Mr. Scott became the sole support of his growing family when Junior was born three weeks ago.

The $8 an hour that he makes at Dunkin' Donuts has not been enough to cover his family's bills and medical expenses.

On Thursday, Mr. Scott was joined at 6 a.m. by about 200 people in Market Square standing outside the Dunkin' Donuts where he works. The protesters shut down that shop briefly, calling for an increase of the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour.

Protests target Pittsburgh restaurants

Hundreds of protesters calling for an increase in the minimum wage targeted a number of fast-food restaurants in the Downtown area today. (Video by Nate Guidry; 12/5/2013)

The fast-food protests in Pittsburgh, which hit Dunkin' Donuts and McDonald's locations in Downtown in the morning and then Wendy's and McDonald's restaurants on the North Side at noon, were timed to be part of strikes by fast-food workers across the nation calling for increased wages and the right to join a union.

More than 100 protesters streamed into McDonald's on Stanwix Street in the first round of demonstrations, effectively shutting down the restaurant to paying customers. The demonstrators gathered in front of the counters and chanted, "I'm not lovin' it," playing on the corporate "I'm lovin' it" advertising campaign.

"We can't survive on $7.25," the crowd chanted, referring to the federal minimum wage, which was last increased on July 4, 2009.

The protests locally were organized by OnePittsburgh, which is working with Service Employees International Union, the union that has been trying to organize fast-food and low-wage workers across the country, as well as the service workers in the UPMC health system in Pittsburgh.

In August, fast-food protests hit 50 cities, but not Pittsburgh. While the city has seen minimum-wage protests, this is the first of the coordinated strikes to be held here.

McDonald's issued a statement that the corporation and "our owner-operators are committed to providing our employees with opportunities to succeed. We offer employees advancement opportunities, competitive pay and benefits."

The company also said "To right-size the headlines, however, the events taking place are not strikes. Outside groups are traveling to McDonald's and other outlets to stage rallies. Our restaurants remain open today -- and every day -- thanks to our dedicated employees serving our customers."

In Pittsburgh, the people at the rallies included McDonald's workers, but also union members and activists who have been engaged in the fight for increasing the minimum wage and issues relating to ending poverty.

The push for higher pay in the fast-food industry faces an uphill battle. The industry competes aggressively on value offerings and companies have warned that they would need to raise prices if wages were hiked. Most fast-food locations also are owned and operated by franchisees, which lets companies such as McDonald's Corp., Burger King Worldwide Inc. and Yum Brands Inc. say that they don't control worker pay.

However, labor advocates have pointed out that companies control many other aspects of restaurant operations through their franchise agreements, including menus, suppliers and equipment.

The National Restaurant Association, an industry lobbying group, said most of those protesting were union workers and that "relatively few" workers have participated in past actions. It called the demonstrations a "campaign engineered by national labor groups."

In Pittsburgh, managers of the restaurants from which workers were striking were supplied with those workers' names, said Kyndall Mason, a coordinator for OnePittsburgh. The notice was meant to provide some legal protection. The workers who were from Wendy's, McDonald's and Dunkin' Donuts restaurants will be escorted back to work this morning by union organizers.

The pre-dawn fast food strikers even brought along muffins and fruit that they had bought at a unionized Giant Eagle supermarket to offer to people so they would not patronize the businesses that pay a low wage.

Some customers took the free food, others walked past the protesters and into Dunkin' Donuts for their morning coffee.

While the store manager declined comment, Lakeisha Jett, 23, of Homewood, who has worked for the corporation for two years and spent the last year in the Downtown location, was outside with the protesters.

She said she used to work up to 70 hours a week, but her hours have been cut to fewer than 30. She said her $8-an-hour wage makes it difficult to pay her bills.

Mr. Scott agreed, saying, "It's very tough to provide for your family on poverty wages."

The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that in 2012, 195,000 workers in Pennsylvania were paid at or below minimum wage. Employers can pay less than the federal minimum wage if the employees also earn tips. Overall, according to the bureau, hourly workers in the commonwealth had median earnings of $13.14 an hour last year.

A study by the Washington, D.C., research organization Economic Policy Institute found the average age of minimum-wage workers is 35 years old, while 36 percent of the people earning minimum wage are 40 years old or older. The study found that 28 percent of minimum-wage workers have children and that on average they earn half of their families' income.

The Associated Press contributed to this report. Ann Belser: abelser@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1699.

First Published December 5, 2013 7:38 AM

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