Though their teeth may have been chattering, their message was clear.
“Hear our voices, hear our rage, it’s time to raise the minimum wage,” about 15 members of local labor unions and community groups chanted as they marched in front of a trio of Cedar Rapids fast-food restaurants Thursday afternoon in 20-degree weather.
The plan was to spend 15 minutes in front of Burger King, Wendy’s and McDonald’s on 33rd Avenue Southwest in Cedar Rapids to deliver a message of support for low-wage fast-food workers and raise the public’s awareness of the need to increase the minimum wage, SEIU Local 199 member Devin Mehaffey told the demonstrators.
“If we make it that long,” he added. “It’s dang cold out here.”
It was, but the message is heating up, according to Jim Jacobson, general counsel for SEIU Local 199. The demonstration in Cedar Rapids and another in front of the McDonald’s on Riverside Drive in Iowa City that drew about 40 people earlier in the day were among rallies in more than 100 cities Thursday. The rallies were organized by labor unions, faith-based groups and other organizations calling for a $15-an-hour minimum wage for fast-food workers who, according to Jacobson, increasingly are adults with families rather than teenagers earning pocket change after school.
However, it’s also about more than minimum wage workers, he said.
“When fast-food companies and the Wal-marts of the world drive wages down everyone suffers,” Jacobson said. “There’s not enough income there for those people to participate in the economy.”
Plus, Jacobson said, low wages cost taxpayers about $4 billion a year to give low-wage workers access to food stamps, Medicaid and other public assistance programs.
“That’s tax money that could be spent elsewhere,” he said.
The campaign is called the “Fight for $15,” but even that may not be enough for minimum wage workers to make a livable wage, according to Jacobson. In Iowa, a single parent with child needs to make at least $18 an hour “so they don’t have to make those choices between fixing the car to get to work and feeding their kids.”
Critics of raising the minimum wage say fast-food companies will have to double the costs of burgers and other menu items, and will replace workers with technology that will allow customers to place orders on touch-screen kiosks, for example,
The arguments against a minimum wage hike are the “same scare tactics we hear on everything,” according to Jacobson.
“It doesn’t have to cost jobs,” the SEIU attorney said. Fast-food companies “make billions and billions of dollars a year in profits. They could raise wages a reasonable amount and still have good profits.”
No representatives of the restaurants targeted Thursday chose to speak about the issue. Calls to the Iowa City and Cedar Rapids McDonald’s franchise owners were not immediately returned.
At Wendy’s on 33rd Avenue Southwest in Cedar Rapids, Director of Operations Greg Smith turned away demonstrators as they attempted to enter the building. They wanted to deliver a letter addressed to Wendy’s CEO Emil Brolick, who SEIU says earns $5.8 million a year.
It was a company decision to deny them access, Smith said.