Fast-food workers rally for higher pay

Labor groups and fast-food workers are planning protests in roughly 130 U.S. cities today to demand higher pay.

The rallies at McDonald’s (MCD), Burger King (BKW), Wendy’s (WEN) and KFC locations around the country are calling for the restaurant chains to pay employees at least $15 an hour. The protests continue a string of demonstrations that have grown in scope over the last year, including actions at Walmart stores on Black Friday. 

Organizers say that there will also be protests by supporters in upwards of 125 additional cities, although those may not involve workers of the chains.

Although fast-food companies and some other large retailers are resisting a push to raise wages, the union-led campaigns are fueling renewed public debate over the minimum wage and rising income inequality in the U.S.

President Obama on Wednesday said that income inequality and declining social mobility represent "the defining challenge of our time" and argued for increased government involvement, including an increase in the federal minimum wage. Although Obama has previously backed raising the minimum wage to $9 an hour, up from $7.25, he stopped short of specifying a dollar amount, saying only that "we just want it to be higher." Congressional Democrats have proposed lifting the minimum hourly wage to $10.10.

A number of factors have contributed to the current focus on income inequality. As former U.S. Secretary of Labor Robert Reich recently told CBS MoneyWatch, "Almost all of the [economic] gains, certainly since the recession but really most of the gains over the last 30 years, have gone to the very top" of income earners. Americans have fewer financial resources to weather economic storms, with the Great Recession plunging millions of people around the world into poverty and heightening financial insecurity.

The issue recently spurred Pope Francis to deride the "idolatry of money" and "trickle-down theories" of economics, which espouse that increasing wealth at the top of a society ultimately trickles down to those who have less.

Concern about income inequality isn't found only among liberal politicians, academics, religious leaders and downtrodden consumers. Dominic Barton, global managing director at management consultancy McKinsey & Co., tells the Wall Street Journal that income inequality is the biggest challenge to capitalism "due to the divisions that it creates within society and the strain that it puts on social safety nets." California conservative activist and businessman Ron Utz also has called for a state $12 an hour minimum wage as a way to reduce dependence on government assistance.

Organizers and participants in today's fast-food protests hope to capitalize on the growing public focus on employee pay. The average fast-food worker makes $9 an hour and works 26.4 hours per week. That leaves many in the industry -- 70 percent of whom are age 20 or older -- living at or below poverty levels.

The Service Employees International Union provides "financial and technical support" to the fast-food protests, according to the labor group. Other participants in the campaign include local community, social welfare and religious groups. But labor groups say the "bulk" of protesters are fast-food workers.

The SEIU and other unions could reap a benefit from raising the minimum wage because many union contracts have escalator clauses that automatically increase pay of some or all workers if state or federal minimum wage levels rise above a particular point.

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    Erik Sherman is a widely published writer and editor who also does select ghosting and corporate work. The views expressed in this column belong to Sherman and do not represent the views of CBS Interactive. Follow him on Twitter at @ErikSherman or on Facebook.