On top of the customary musical accompaniment to their Happy Meals, customers at the McDonald's on Williston Road in South Burlington were serenaded on Thursday with a noontime chant of "Hold the burgers, hold the fries, make our wages supersize!"
About two dozen protesters brought their demand for livable wages into the busy fast-food eatery as McDonald's workers looked on silently — and seemingly stunned. It was unclear how much those workers make; local managers also declined to comment on the local manifestation of a nationwide day of walkouts and solidarity demonstrations at fast-food restaurants in support of a $15-an-hour wage.
The demonstrators weren't at all reticent. One of them led several others in the "mic check" call-and-response popularized by the Occupy Wall Street movement.
"On this day ..." the leader shouted.
Her fellow protesters joined in with this chant: " ...Workers in 100 cities/are going on strike/and people like us/are standing with them/to demand McDonald's respect the right/ to work with dignity."
A South Burlington police officer rushed into the restaurant at that point and told the protestors they had to leave. They filed out a couple of minutes later, resuming their chant and sign-waving on the sidewalk for half an hour as several passing motorists honked in response.
While managers at the South Burlington restaurant declined to comment, Lisa McComb, a spokesperson with McDonald’s USA, had this to say: “McDonald’s and our owner-operators are committed to providing our employees with opportunities to succeed. We offer employees advancement opportunities, competitive pay and benefits. And we invest in training and professional development that helps them learn practical and transferable business skills.
"We also respect the right to voice an opinion," she continued. "To right-size the headlines, however,the events taking place are not strikes. Outside groups are traveling to McDonald’s andother outlets to stage rallies. Our restaurants remain open today — and every day — thanks to our dedicated employees serving our customers.”
Many of the activists are associated with the Vermont Workers Center and other social-change organizations. Asked by a reporter if any of them actually work at a fast-food restaurant, Natalia Fajardo (pictured with sign above her head) stepped forward to say she had earned $6.25 an hour a few years ago as a cashier at a Florida burger joint.
"I got no benefits, either," Fajardo recounted. "If I stayed home sick for a day, I didn't get paid. People think it's only college and high school kids who work at McDonald's but there's plenty of parents too, and they can't live on their wages."
Fast-food workers in the United States earned on average $9 an hour, or $18,720 a year in 2012, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
About 90 percent of the 14,100 McDonald’s locations in the U.S. are locally owned franchises. And it was to the owners of Vermont McDonald franchises that protestors in South Burlington — and also today in Berlin — addressed a letter urging them "to agree to basic standards and put pressure upon corporate headquarters to guarantee your employees have the right to work with dignity to support the well-being of our communities."
Ashley Smith, a member of the Vermont chapter of the International Socialist Organization, acknowledged that Burlington's municipal workers and employees of city contractors had won "an important victory" with the adoption 12 years ago of a livable wage ordinance. It currently sets a minimum of $13.94 an hour for those with health insurance and $15.83 for those without.
"But there are hundreds of retail workers in Burlington who aren't making a livable wage," Smith noted. "Everyone in this city, this state and this country should be guaranteed at least $15 an hour."
Today's action is "just the beginning," Smith said, adding that "without the Occupy movement we wouldn't be out here today. Occupy put the whole issue of income inequality on the agenda."