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

| 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.”

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