Workers Demand Minimum Wage Hike

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About 20 protesters marched outside the Pizza Hunt in south Lansing Thursday morning. They walked back and forth in front of the building with red posters and signs while chanting "Hey hey, ho ho, $7.40 has got to go."

The protesters are only a handful of a much larger movement happening at fast food restaurants in cities across the state and country.

Fast food employees want their hourly wages to nearly double, from just above to $7 an hour to $15. They also want to form a union.

"They have air conditioning in the dinning area but not in the kitchen," said Jermel Montgomery, a local pastor who was at the Pizza Hut protesting. "As we look on menus and we look at the average cost of what people are spending at fast food, considering that it's a $200 billion dollar a year industry, $15 an hour is a respectable wage."

"It's the fastest growing industry in America but yet the workers are the lowest paid," said Damel Bradly a protester who works at the Pizza Hut. "We are just trying to fix that."

The protesters feel it's not asking too much for a worker at a McDonalds, Wendy's or Burger King to make enough to be at poverty level rather than below it.

"$15 would be a big jump. Only once in history has the minimum wage gone up anywhere near that much," said Charles Ballard and economist and professor at Michigan State University. "In 1950 the minimum wage almost doubled and unemployment went down. So that would seem to go against the conventional story [that higher wages means fewer employees]. However 1950 was the kick-off year of the Korean War which lead to some of the lowest unemployment rates that we've seen."

While many workers with college degrees or technical skills currently make less than $15, Ballard said if the minimum wage were increased, to stay competitive, almost all workers that currently make less than, about or even slightly above $15 would see a pay increase as well.

Ballard says only those at the very top might not see an increase in their wages.

"Those at the top have done extraordinarily well in the United States. Those in the middle and the bottom really have not made much progress and many in the middle and at the bottom have lost ground," said Ballard.

But a minimum wage increase could hurt small businesses.

"This would probably put a squeeze on some small businesses. I think there's no question about that," said Ballard. "My sense that a more modest increase in the minimum wage would lead to bigger boosts for earnings for low income people and it would not lead to a huge amount of loss of jobs."

It's likely businesses would push the cost increase to consumers.

Fast food workers feel their employers should share the company wealth with them because they are the ones doing the the work, but companies aren't necessarily there to help workers as much as investors.

"They're in business to make money, they're in business to make a profit," said Edythe Hatter-Williams, the President and Chief Operating Officer at Capital Area Michigan Works.

If the minimum wage were increased, employers would also likely try to reduce the number of workers they have to pay.

"We all depend on [fast food worker] because when you go to a fast food restaurant you're going there to get something quick," said Hatter-Williams. However, "this is unskilled labor, and so to pay them $15 an hour means that either [companies] are going to have to raise the prices for consumers that come in to buy their food or their goods or services or it could mean that there would be less workers, longer lines and longer wait times."

According to Michigan State AFL-CIO President Karla Swift "if minimum wage had kept up with inflation, it would be around $21 per hour," said Swift in a statement. "Over the past decade, worker productivity has continued to grow but wages have remained stagnant and even declined."

It's unlikely fast food workers will gain enough political steam to make the change they want. Instead Hatter-Williams encourages people to get educated in a field that pays the wage they desire.

"There are a lot of jobs that are going unfilled because of the skills gab," said Hatter-Williams. "Get your education in an industry where there are going to be jobs that are going to pay a descent wage. It's really important to do the research."

Economists predict the minimum wage will increase in the next five years, although by a much smaller amount.

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