BUSINESS
05/15/2013 02:19 pm ET | Updated May 15, 2013

Milwaukee Low-Wage Workers Strike, Demanding Better Pay

Alamy

Fast-food and retail workers walked off the job in Milwaukee, Wis., on Wednesday, prompting labor organizers to speak of "spreading unrest" in the service industry.

The strike followed similar one-day walkouts over the last two months in Detroit, Chicago, St. Louis, and New York, as well as a nationwide walkout by Walmart workers on Black Friday.

Like those who have gone on strike in other cities, the Milwaukee workers are demanding a "living wage" of $15 an hour and the right to form a union.

"I feel that I do so much work and get so little pay," said Stephanie Sanders, a 33-year-old McDonald's employee who earns the federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour at the Milwaukee restaurant where she works.

Since the recession, low-paying work has comprised more than half the country's new jobs. Although many corporations are earning more than they did before the downturn, workers' wages have not improved. Fast-food and retail companies are among the nation's largest employers of low-wage workers.

In Milwaukee, some 100,000 manufacturing jobs have disappeared since the early 1980s, leaving many workers to rely on low-paying jobs at places like McDonald's and Walmart.

A spokeswoman for McDonald's said employees are paid "competitive wages" and can take advantage of "a variety of training and professional development opportunities."

"Both our company and franchised-owned restaurants work hard every day to treat McDonald's employees with dignity and respect," said spokeswoman Ofelia Casillas in an emailed statement.

Striking workers in Milwaukee said they were inspired by their counterparts in other cities. Sanders said she traveled to the Chicago strike last month with a group of workers and organizers from Wisconsin and was moved by what she saw there. "I never seen so many people come together under one roof for a good cause," she said.

Sanders started working at fast-food restaurants when she was a teenager. She served roast beef at Arby's, tacos at Taco Bell, Big Macs at McDonalds and Whoppers at Burger King.

She eventually found better-paying work as a retail manager, but she lost that job during the recession and was forced to go back to fast food. Despite her years of experience, she earns the lowest wage allowed by the federal government. "I basically have to start all over again," she said.

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