Thousands of fast-food workers have kicked off a day of coordinated strikes in more than 60 cities across the US, walking off their jobs and forming picket lines to demand salaries of $15 an hour and the ability to form unions.
In New York, restaurant employees started picketing at 6:30am on Thursday in front of a McDonald’s in midtown Manhattan, brandishing signs and chanting for better pay and benefits.
Tamara Green, 26, attended the strike because her minimum-wage salary at a Burger King restaurant does not begin to cover her $1,000 monthly rent.
“I try to live the American dream, but I just can’t do that on $7.25. It’s just impossible,” she said. “We’re so suffocated underneath assumptions that we’re nobody.”
She has worked part-time at Burger King, about 20 hours a week, for the past four months, earning around $98 each week after taxes.
More than four million people work at fast food restaurants in the US, earning an average annual wage of $18,130 in 2010, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Jonathan Westin, the director of the fast-food employee union Fast Food Forward and executive director of the advocacy group New York Communities for Change, has been talking to fast food workers for the last year and a half about the conditions they face in the industry.
Last November, he helped organise a protest of about 200 workers in New York City, the catalyst for Thursday’s nationwide event.
“We hear a resounding answer that people are just unable to live off the wages they’re paid in this industry, especially in New York, which is the most expensive city in the country,” he told Al Jazeera at the strike.
The National Restaurant Association, for its part, says heightened labour costs would prevent fast food restaurants from making more hires.
“We welcome a debate on fair wages, but it needs to be based on facts,” vice president of labour and workforce policy Angelo Amador told Al Jazeera.
“And the facts show that the majority of workers who earn the minimum wage in the US are not employed in the restaurant industry.”
Shenita Simon, 25, a mother of three children, makes more than minimum wage as a shift supervisor at a KFC in Brooklyn, but barely earns $8 an hour working about 36 hours a week.
She attended the strike at McDonald's on Thursday morning because, as she says, with union support, “things like me getting burned with 190-degree water on my hands won’t happen any more, because we’ll be supplied with adequate equipment, things like simple oven gloves, they refuse to buy.”
In April 2012, she was carrying a pan of hot water, which she was asked to do on a regular basis.
She says her employer does not provide oven mitts or protective gloves, and she scalded her hands after she accidentally tipped the pan while carrying it to the sink. She had to take three weeks off work.
Simon said it took three weeks to get worker’s compensation, and when it finally came, it was only $58.
“So I had no choice but to go back to work,” she said.
Al Jazeera’s Massoud Hayoun contributed to this report.