Retail group slams fast food worker protests as 'orchestrated theater'

The retail lobby is fighting back against nationwide worker strikes, calling it “orchestrated theater” by labor unions.

Employees at fast-food and retail establishments plan to walk off their jobs on Thursday to call for higher wages. It’s the latest in a string of demonstrations intended to highlight the need to raise the minimum wage.

The National Retail Federation argues labor unions behind the effort are simply trying to increase their roles by recruiting fast-food workers and employees of big retailers.

“Today’s publicity stunt is just further proof that the labor movement is not only facing depleted membership rolls, they have abdicated their role in an honest and rational discussion about the American workforce,” said Bill Thorne, the National Retail Federation’s senior vice president, in a statement.

Workers in about 35 cities are demanding the right to unionize and increased pay, up to $15 per hour – more than double the current federal minimum wage of $7.25 per hour.

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Protests have spread since late last year, when more than 200 fast-food workers in New York City staged a one-day walkout. Various unions, liberal groups and politicians have offered support for the effort.

The trade group says retailers have more than 3.6 million establishments in the U.S. and provide competitive paying jobs for 42 million Americans.

“Retail and restaurant companies pay competitive wages and many offer additional benefits,” Thorne said. “Likewise, a large number of managers in these same companies started as part time or hourly employees themselves.”

President Obama called for raising the minimum wage to $9 per hour in his State of the Union address. Bills in the House and Senate would establish a $10 per hour federal minimum wage.

The president pushed again on Wednesday for the increased pay, arguing that rates have not kept up with the pace of inflation.

“I think that it is important for us to make sure that we're rebuilding the infrastructure of this nation,” he said in an interview with "PBS Newshour," doubling down on comments he made in Illinois last month.

“This growing inequality is not just morally wrong, it’s bad economics,” Obama said while in Galesburg, Ill., in July. 

Thorne argued Thursday that the protest efforts are part of “a multi-year effort by big labor to diminish and disparage these hard-working Americans by attacking the companies they work for.”

“The law is clear: if employees want to unionize, they can. But they are not, so unions are paying high-priced public relations firms and work centers to conduct disruptive labor activities,” he said.

Groups backing the effort argue the minimum wage has failed to keep up with inflation and that raising it would put pressure on fast-food companies and retailers to raise their wages.

They argue it is difficult for families to get by on the low wages paid by these industries.

An analysis of government data by the Center for Economic and Policy Research found that 36 percent of all fast-food workers are ages 25 and older, while 30 percent are in their teens. More than a quarter are raising children. 

“Despite the age structure and the educational attainment of fast-food workers, their wages are very low, even by today’s depressed standards,” the progressive economic think-tank says. “The majority of workers in fast-food are adults with a high school degree or more, which you would never guess from the way the industry pays.” 

—Peter Schroeder and Erik Wasson contributed to this report.