Fast-food workers storm an Uptown McDonald's to demand $15 minimum wage

Inside the McDonald's at Hennepin and Lagoon avenues on Thursday
Inside the McDonald's at Hennepin and Lagoon avenues on Thursday
Jesse Marx

Steven Strong hops out of a black van behind the Hennepin County Library in Uptown alongside several of his fellow fast-food workers. He flexes a sign calling for "respect" and looks out at the crowd that's forming on the grass.

"We just want reasonable pay," he says, then weighs the task ahead of him. "I'll just be happy if I don't get arrested."

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Across the country, the servers of places like McDonald's and Burger King united Thursday to demand $15 an hour pay and sick leave. Organizers point to the fact that the strongest employment sectors during the recovery pay low wages, which could undermine further economic growth.

What was once considered unthinkable is now the law in Seattle, in part because the cost of poor pay extends beyond the restaurants themselves. Two studies estimate that the government spends $7 billion a year to assist burger flippers and their families.

Strong says he has been working in fast food for much of his life, currently at the McDonald's on Lake Street and Second Avenue South, but has no permanent address to call home.

"What good is it to work," he asks, "if you can't afford a place to stay?"

He disappears into the crowd as it heads toward the McDonald's on Lagoon and Hennepin Avenues. Protestors stop traffic and make their way through the door, surprising several diners. Drummers bang on buckets. The crowd rumbles, "Strike! Strike! Strike!"

A teenage boy at the counter wearing flannel and basketball shorts leans back. "I want free meals!" he says, and looks to the female cashier for a laugh. She feigns a smile. The store manager stares into the dining room, with a hand on each hip.

One by one, labor activists, workers, and politicians grab a mic that's connected to a speaker perched atop a man's shoulder. Scott Dibble, the democratic state senator from Minneapolis, says the push for higher wages comes down to two words: "human dignity."

"Bullshit!" yells Jim Vandergriend, a customer who's just walked in the door. "Bullshit!"

He swipes a hand through the air and pushes his way to the counter to order a cup of coffee. He says the protestors are misguided, because their beef is with McDonald's whereas most of the franchises are individually owned. He fails to mention, though, that the National Labor Relations Board views the corporation and its franchisees as jointly liable for labor practices.

Before long, four cops arrive. They stand along the edge and watch quietly. Their presence tells the protestors that it's time to move on.

Rob Martin, another customer, follows the rally back into the street. He says he's unemployed and will probably end up taking a minimum wage job. He doesn't just sympathize with the protestors. He empathizes with them.

"There's a difference," Martin says.

-- Send story tips to the author or follow him on Twitter @marxjesse

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