At hastily planned protests in several cities, workers and labor organizers criticized the new McDonald's Corp. pay-increase plan as too little for too few.
Protesters are angry that the Oak Brook, Ill., company won't improve wages for employees at franchises, which make up 90% of McDonald's roughly 14,000 U.S. stores. Even for the 90,000 workers at company-owned stores who will see their paychecks increase to at least $1 above local hourly minimum wages starting July 1, the concession is too small, advocates said.
But many were confident that McDonald's announcement Wednesday will drive momentum ahead of a massive set of rallies scheduled for April 15, at which organizers expect supporters of a $15 hourly minimum wage to congregate in 200 cities nationwide.
"McDonald's jumped the gun and showed what they can do if they want to, and that raising wages is a matter of will," said Gilda Valdez, president of the Los Angeles organizing committee for the Fight for $15 campaign. "This was an attempt from McDonald's to preempt our action on the 15th, but to us, it's a slap in the face."
McDonald's did not respond to a request for comment.
The tax day protests will continue a series of events that began in November 2012, when more than 100 fast-food workers in New York walked off their jobs to demand better pay and the right to form unions without retribution from their employers.
Since then, the rallies have spread globally and expanded to include other low-paid occupations such as home caregivers, retail employees and airport workers.
Their well-honed tactics were on display Thursday outside a McDonald's in L.A.'s Westlake neighborhood, where a few dozen protesters shouted catchy chants and carried posters emblazoned with slogans such as "Dignity, respect, put $15 in my check."
During the lunchtime rush, when the restaurant was full of dining customers, the protesters swarmed inside. Jemere Calhoun, 31 — a crew trainer at a franchisee-owned McDonald's downtown — urged solidarity in a speech.
"We're all in this together," said the 4-year veteran of the company, who earns $9.35 an hour. "A $1 raise sounds good, but it's not what we want, it's not what we need and it's not what we deserve."
In a corner of the restaurant, Pasadena City College freshman Christian Campos tried to study trigonometry at a table blanketed with papers covered in formulas.
The Westlake resident, 21, said he once considered working at a McDonald's part time but decided he would earn too little for his effort. He said he sympathizes with protesters in part because his education is financed by his mother, a single parent earning minimum wage at a laundromat.
"I'm actually happy I'm seeing this," he said of the protest. "The way people live right now, this kind of pay is not enough. If we don't speak about this issue, nothing will happen."
The protests tend to draw intense media interest, but whether they influence major companies' decisions to boost wages is unclear, said Efraim Levy, an equity analyst at S&P Capital IQ.
Other contributing factors include a tightening labor market that has increased competition for talent as well as a gradual lift in incomes.
"It's always hard to tell whether or not those stories make a change in the bigger picture," he said. "Sometimes these stories gain traction and build to a crescendo, and sometimes they disappear."
Whatever the provocation, wages are a hot topic in government halls and corporate boardrooms.
Local politicians across the country — including at the city and county levels in Los Angeles — are proposing or studying minimum wage increases. Major retailers such as Wal-Mart Stores Inc. and Target Corp. have recently revealed plans to boost pay for their workers.
Their actions indicate that large corporations will voluntarily raise pay without government involvement, said Michael Saltsman, research director at conservative think tank Employment Policies Institute. The wage boosts could also deflate protesters' arguments that such companies make their profits by depressing worker pay, he said.
But Saltsman cautioned that many small businesses can't absorb higher labor costs. He said that higher minimum wages in San Francisco and Oakland have hurt some mom-and-pop enterprises.
"I have talked to businesses out there that have closed or cut staff, or restaurants that raised prices by 20%," he said. "You are seeing proof positive the one-size-fits-all approach doesn't work."
Protest organizers, however, say there's room for adjustment in the fast-food industry, which is a major employer of low-wage workers in the country.
The pay gap between executives and service employees is often huge, said Catherine Ruetschlin, a senior policy analyst at left-leaning think tank Demos.
Chief executives often earn more than 1,000 times the salary of average workers, she said. And at $9.01, McDonald's current hourly average wage falls short of the industry average of $9.49 an hour.
Behemoth corporations such as McDonald's have the power to "set labor standards for the rest of the country," Ruetschlin said.
By doing so, such companies can win points with the public, said Levy of S&P. McDonald's, which has suffered from sagging sales for months, probably implemented the pay raise in part to counter its reputation for paying less than a living wage, he said.
"This puts a prettier face out there," Levy said. "McDonald's has a leadership role in the industry, and others will follow its example whether not by choice or voluntarily."
Many franchise workers, such as single mother Mayra Flores, 27, expressed a sense of alienation because of McDonald's pay plan, a feeling that organizers hope will compel more employees to join the April 15 rallies.
"It's not nice that McDonald's left us out — we all do the same work," said Flores, a cashier at a South L.A. McDonald's. "They left the decision to raise wages up to the franchise owners, but we all know that's not going to happen."
Flores said that a year ago her schedule was reduced from full time to 20 hours a week, ostensibly because the company's sales were struggling. Now, she said, she sometimes has to make the "terrifying" choice between paying rent, buying food or taking her 5-year-old daughter to the doctor.
She said she participates in protests to show the public McDonald's greed.
"Some people just don't understand and are negative," she said. "But they're changing their minds, especially when I break it down for them and show that it's for our future, so hopefully one day our kids don't have to work at McDonald's."