| Business

Larger text Larger text Smaller text Smaller text | Order Photo Reprints

Fast-food workers' pitch for higher pay turning into civil rights issue

Email Newsletters

Click here to sign up for one of our email newsletters.

On the Grid

From the shale fields to the cooling towers, Trib Total Media covers the energy industry in Western Pennsylvania and beyond. For the latest news and views on gas, coal, electricity and more, check out On the Grid today.

'American Coyotes' Series

Traveling by Jeep, boat and foot, Tribune-Review investigative reporter Carl Prine and photojournalist Justin Merriman covered nearly 2,000 miles over two months along the border with Mexico to report on coyotes — the human traffickers who bring illegal immigrants into the United States. Most are Americans working for money and/or drugs. This series reports how their operations have a major impact on life for residents and the environment along the border — and beyond.

By Diane Stafford
Saturday, Aug. 9, 2014, 9:00 p.m.

A year ago, Terrance Wise stepped forward as a protest leader among Kansas City fast-food workers. This year, he addressed the national NAACP convention with his message:

Raising the minimum wage is a matter of civil rights, not just economics.

At the convention in Las Vegas, Wise asked delegates to support fast-food workers's quest for higher pay. In a unanimous resolution, the organization backed raising the federal minimum wage. Since 2009, it's been $7.25 an hour.

For a growing chorus of voices, higher pay has become a civil rights issue. They argue that workers, especially on full-time hours, should earn a “living wage” — enough to cover housing, food, fuel and clothing expenses — and minimum wage's $15,000 a year doesn't cut it.

The debate has no summer slump.

The civil rights calls are gaining traction and moving the wage quest beyond campaigns for collective bargaining rights for low-wage workers.

Unions, especially the Service Employees International Union and other AFL-CIO organizations, have provided financial and legal support, seeking to organize fast-food employees. The union-backed efforts champion “$15 an hour and a union.”

Some low-wage workers think that's overreaching and divides public sentiment. The NAACP measure focused on the more moderate “economic justice for all.” It supports “a living wage for all working people” and endorses the federal Fair Minimum Wage Act of 2013 and President Obama's executive order requiring federal contractors to pay workers at least $10.10 an hour.

The act, introduced last year in the Senate, would raise the federal minimum wage over three years to $10.10. The bill's passage is uncertain.

The Missouri Restaurant Association, among several trade groups, opposes $10.10 an hour. It says the restaurant industry is “inappropriately attacked” in that its jobs provide “a ladder of opportunity to reach the middle class” for entry-level workers.

But for many in the low-wage movement, $10.10 is a reasonable aim. They note that corporate profits and executive salaries have risen as the nation clawed its way out of a recession.

Fast-food chains generally have responded to wage protests by saying that they're proud to provide entry-level job opportunities and that they respect workers' rights to protest. Some chains note that pay is set by franchisees, not the large corporations.

Although surveys generally find that 8 in 10 Americans back a minimum-wage increase, a sizable contingent believes wage hikes aren't necessary. That includes some think tanks, business owners, trade associations and ordinary citizens who think low-wage workers are paid what they're worth, as a free market system dictates.

Some business-oriented and conservative groups say the workers pursue their wage quests at their peril. The Employment Policies Institute has issued this warning about a $15-an-hour wage:

“Restaurants keep just a few cents in profit from each sales dollar and won't be able to afford current staffing levels when faced with a $15 minimum wage. Instead, they will be forced to replace employees with less costly automated alternatives like touch-screen ordering and payment devices.”

Send email to Diane Stafford at Follow her online at and

Subscribe today! Click here for our subscription offers.



Show commenting policy

Most-Read Business Headlines

  1. Facebook ready to test giant drone
  2. Home rental prices jumped again in June
  3. Cost-cutting at Kraft Heinz extends to refrigerator
  4. Economy’s 2Q best since last year
  5. U.S. asks Supreme Court to reinstate convictions of portfolio managers who won on appeal
  6. GNC to convert more stores to franchises as sales, profits slip
  7. Muni bond funds stressed
  8. Stocks bounce back from big losses to close relatively flat
  9. Kennametal expects to consolidate plants as it shrinks manufacturing in continuing streamlining; profit drops
  10. Post-Gazette offers voluntary buyouts in bid to avoid layoffs
  11. EPA ordered to ease limits on cross-border air pollution that involves Pennsylvania