Explaining Southern California's economy

What can Los Angeles fast-food workers achieve with a walk out?

Fast Food Worker Strike

Corey Moore/KPCC

Fast food worker Johnathan Pacheco marches outside of a Burger King in South Los Angeles Thursday morning to support higher wages. It's part of a nationwide labor action calling for pay to be increased to $15-an-hour.

Thousands of fast-food workers walked off the job Thursday in dozens of cities across the country, including dozens  in the Los Angeles region.

Organizers billed it as the largest strike ever to hit the $200 billion industry, even though just a tiny fraction of restaurants were affected.

The demands are simple: Workers want the right to unionize and a dramatic increase in their hourly wage, from an average of $9-an-hour in L.A. to $15.

“They expect a lot from us, and we don’t get paid enough for it,” said a 23-year-old Long Beach mother who said she earns $8.44 an hour working at Taco Bell. (She declined to provide her name because she feared losing her job)

“They tell us a lot of stuff we got to do in a little time and we don’t get benefits for it,” she said.

RELATED: Some Los Angeles-area fast-food workers join nationwide strike for higher pay (photos)

Labor historians say this movement should not be underestimated.

“If someone would have asked me two years ago: 'Do you think it would be realistic to get fast food workers to walk off the job for the day?' I would have said it wouldn’t have been realistic,” said Harley Shaiken, a labor historian at The University of California, Berkeley.

He says even though the total number of protesters is relatively small, this is still a very significant moment for the estimated 181,000 fast-food workers in L.A.

"We forget that the March on Washington that drew 250,000-300,00 people was preceded by two people sitting down at a lunch counter,” said Shaiken.

He doesn’t think workers will actually unionize anytime soon, but he says by bringing attention to their cause, fast-food workers can pressure lawmakers to raise the minimum wage, which has pretty much been a political non-starter.

“The outcomes here could be far greater than the numbers or what we’re seeing today,” said Shaiken.

The benefits of targeting the entire industry

Angelica Pappas, a spokeswoman for the California Restaurant Association, says asking for $15-an-hour is unrealistic.

“It definitely doesn’t align with the economics of running a restaurant,” said Pappas. “Restaurants operate on a 1 percent to 5 percent profit margin. Owners are keeping pennies on the dollar.”

The Golden Arches, which fried up $1.4 billion in profits last quarter alone, is a ripe target for protesters. But it’s not the only one.

And that’s a wise strategy, according to Nelson Lichtenstein, a labor historian and director of the Center for the Study of Work at The University of California, Santa Barbara.

“One thing we’ve learned from labor history is that sometimes it’s easier to get an entire industry to move than one company,” said Lichtenstein.

That’s because if it’s just one company, it will likely worry that if it pays more, it could put them at a competitive disadvantage.

“Whereas if you do the entire industry, the playing field is leveled,” explained Lichtenstein. “Everyone pays the same wage.”

Fast-food employment as a stepping stone

The restaurant industry argues that most workers are young and are only flipping burgers for a short time until they move on.

One local chain that hasn’t been targeted is In-N-Out Burger, which pays a $10.50 starting wage and offers even it’s part-time workers dental insurance and a 401(k). Managers reportedly make an average of $120,000 a year.

Still, the company isn’t a charity. It’s estimated to have profit margins of 20 percent, which is slightly more than McDonald’s.

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