McDonald’s Retreat on Fighting Wage Increases Shows the Tide Is Turning

Sarah Lahm April 11, 2019

McDonald's has surrendered on the issue of wage increases. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

In March, the McDonald’s Cor­po­ra­tion announced that it would no longer active­ly lob­by against local, state and fed­er­al efforts to raise the min­i­mum wage to $15 an hour. The move comes as Democ­rats in the U.S. House have thrown their weight behind a bill to raise the fed­er­al min­i­mum wage from $7.25 to $15 per hour by 2024.

The deci­sion by McDonald’s was made pub­lic in a recent let­ter sent from Gen­na Gent, vice pres­i­dent of U.S. gov­ern­ment rela­tions for McDonald’s, to the Nation­al Restau­rant Asso­ci­a­tion, an indus­try group that rep­re­sents more than 500,000 restau­rant busi­ness­es across the country.

Accord­ing to the cor­po­rate watch­dog group, Source­Watch, the Nation­al Restau­rant Asso­ci­a­tion is a key lob­by­ing group that has fought hard in recent years to block work­er-friend­ly issues such as paid sick days and increas­es in the min­i­mum wage. As Politi­co reporter Rebec­ca Rainey explained, los­ing McDonald’s as an ally in the fight against wage hikes serves as a seri­ous blow to the trade group.”

Despite the deci­sion, how­ev­er, the Nation­al Restau­rant Asso­ci­a­tion has stood by McDonald’s and recent­ly called the com­pa­ny a val­ued mem­ber” of its organization.

While ini­tial­ly seen as an upstart move­ment fund­ed by labor union activists, the fight for a high­er min­i­mum wage appears to have moved square­ly into the main­stream polit­i­cal land­scape and is like­ly to remain a key cam­paign issue through­out the 2020 election.

Writ­ing in the trade pub­li­ca­tion Restau­rant Busi­ness in Jan­u­ary, Peter Romeo declared that the “$15 min­i­mum wage is already a pres­i­den­tial cam­paign issue.” Romeo not­ed that Ver­mont Sen. Bernie Sanders, a cur­rent con­tender for the nation’s high­est office, has already set the so-called liv­ing wage as an issue he’ll keep front and cen­ter.” In so doing, Sanders’ sup­port, which he has expressed since at least 2015, could prove a test for fel­low sen­a­tors who hope to land the Demo­c­ra­t­ic nom­i­na­tion by win­ning the sup­port of unions and blue-col­lar voters.”

Most of the major Demo­c­ra­t­ic pres­i­den­tial can­di­dates, from Kamala Har­ris to Eliz­a­beth War­ren, already sup­port rais­ing the min­i­mum wage to $15. Recent polls also show a major­i­ty of Amer­i­can vot­ers sup­port increas­ing the min­i­mum wage.

One of the groups that has been call­ing atten­tion to labor and wage issues in the restau­rant indus­try is the non­prof­it Restau­rant Oppor­tu­ni­ties Cen­ters Unit­ed (ROCU). Antho­ny Advin­cu­la, the pub­lic affairs offi­cer for ROCU, tells In These Times that he feels hope­ful after McDonald’s deci­sion to stop lob­by­ing against a min­i­mum wage increase.

We applaud McDonald’s efforts to not block the move to raise wages,” Advin­cu­la says, before express­ing a note of cau­tion. McDonald’s deci­sion is a good sign,” he insists, but not cause for cel­e­bra­tion just yet. We are not going to stop. The work­ers as well as the unions will nev­er step back­wards,” Advin­cu­la added, indi­cat­ing that the fight now for groups such as his is to help ensure that the fed­er­al min­i­mum wage bill becomes more than just a cam­paign talk­ing point.

The Democ­rats in the House are large­ly in sup­port of such a wage raise, but many in the Repub­li­can-con­trolled Sen­ate have voiced their oppo­si­tion to the pro­posed increase, mean­ing the Raise the Wage bill—the cur­rent leg­is­la­tion lift­ing the min­i­mum wage to $15 — could soon hit a dead end.

Regard­less of these road­blocks, many observers see unde­ni­able momen­tum on this issue. Com­pa­nies such as Ama­zon, Tar­get, Bank of Amer­i­ca and Cost­co have inde­pen­dent­ly com­mit­ted to rais­ing work­ers’ wages, per­haps in part to avoid the increas­ing­ly neg­a­tive atten­tion some have received over their employ­ees’ inabil­i­ty to make ends meet while com­pa­ny prof­its soar.

Yet while the McDonald’s Cor­po­ra­tion has stat­ed that it active­ly fight wage increas­es, it still has not agreed to raise its own min­i­mum wage. In her let­ter to the Nation­al Restau­rant Asso­ci­a­tion, Gent argued that the aver­age start­ing wage at its cor­po­rate-owned stores already exceeds $10 per hour,” accord­ing to a Politi­co report. That fig­ure is high­er than the fed­er­al min­i­mum of $7.25 per hour. Gent also not­ed that indi­vid­ual fran­chise own­ers set the pay rate for their own locations.

The lack of com­mit­ment to an over­all min­i­mum wage increase from McDonald’s has led some to dis­miss the company’s recent announce­ment as lit­tle more than a pub­lic­i­ty stunt. Still, in an op-ed pub­lished in the Chica­go Sun-Times, Chris­tine Owens, Exec­u­tive Direc­tor of the Nation­al Employ­ment Law Project, stat­ed that McDonald’s deci­sion to stop par­tic­i­pat­ing in the cam­paign against min­i­mum wage increas­es is a sign that such oppo­si­tion is unten­able in today’s America.”

There’s no doubt the company’s deci­sion is a direct response to the thou­sands and thou­sands of McDonald’s work­ers who’ve tak­en to the streets, gone on strike and even got­ten arrest­ed to fur­ther their fight for $15 an hour and a union,” Owens wrote. She then tapped into the grow­ing polit­i­cal and pop­u­lar sup­port for wage increas­es, not­ing that the company’s move comes at a time when McDonald’s oppo­si­tion to min­i­mum wage increas­es has clear­ly become out of step with both the pol­i­tics around wages and the actions of com­pa­nies across the country.”

Sarah Lahm is a Min­neapo­lis-based writer and for­mer Eng­lish Instruc­tor. She is a 2015 Pro­gres­sive mag­a­zine Edu­ca­tion Fel­low and blogs about edu­ca­tion at bright​lights​mall​ci​ty​.com.
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