(Bloomberg) -- Flanked by dozens of striking fast-food workers, Senator Kamala Harris stood behind a large pro-union banner in Las Vegas, chanting, “McDonald’s pay is really low.”
The next day, on Saturday, three other Democratic presidential candidates joined a protest against the restaurant chain in Charleston, South Carolina. Former Representative Beto O’Rourke joined a group of striking workers before they marched, while Senator Cory Booker and Mayor Pete Buttigieg spoke to the strikers afterward.
Protests for a $15 minimum wage have become a regular campaign stop for Democrats running for president as they court unions and workers — and the place they regularly choose to protest, outside McDonald’s Corp. restaurants, puts the country’s second-largest private employer in an uncomfortable spotlight.
“If we want to talk about these golden arches being a symbol of the best of America, well the arches are falling short,” Harris said outside a Las Vegas McDonald’s on Friday.
Corporate America has become accustomed to criticism from President Donald Trump, who has lambasted Ford Motor Corp. for moving jobs to Mexico, Boeing Co. for charging too much for Air Force One and Amazon.com Inc. for overburdening the U.S. Postal Service. Now companies risk running afoul of the 23 Democrats who are trying to burnish their pro-worker credentials.
Last month, more than a dozen candidates either marched or showed support for striking McDonald’s workers across the country. In addition, eight Senate Democrats, including four presidential candidates, sent a letter last week to McDonald’s CEO on a different topic, accusing the company of failing to address sexual harassment.
Still, McDonald’s bottom line is unlikely to be affected, despite the protests.
“It gets a lot more play on the coasts where people like to take shots at McDonald’s, but in most of America I don’t think people care about this,” said Michael Halen, an analyst at Bloomberg Intelligence. “They’re an easy target -- people like to say they hate McDonald’s, but a lot of people like eating there.”
McDonald’s, which happens to be a favorite of Trump, said in a statement that it doesn’t control the wages that franchisees pay.
“The average starting wage at corporate-owned restaurants exceeds $10 per hour, and we believe the average starting wage offered by those independent business owners is likely similar,” Khim Aday, a spokesman for McDonald’s, said in a statement.
Aday added that the company recognizes employees’ rights to join labor organizations.
But Dorian Warren, the president of the Center for Community Change and a scholar on labor issues, said McDonald’s has made itself into an easy target.
“In terms of share buybacks and how much it pays its CEO and how much it makes in profits, it’s just an obvious target because they’re such a bad actor,” he said. “There’s a hubris and an arrogance around their low-wage model that just enrages their employees, and it also makes it easier to join the workers when you have such a villain.”
From 2015 to 2017, McDonald’s spent $22 billion on share buybacks, and the company made $5.9 billion in profits last year. Steve Easterbrook, the company’s CEO, took home $15.9 million in total compensation in 2018, according to data compiled by Bloomberg.
Taking on McDonald’s also could help candidates curry favor with the Service Employees International Union, an influential union that often spends millions of dollars to support Democratic candidates and that has made the restaurant chain a top target of its “Fight for $15” campaign.
As part of its “minimum criteria” for endorsing candidates, SEIU mandates that they support a litany of proposals including the minimum wage, immigrant rights and affordable health care. The union also requires them to “call out specific corporations like McDonald’s” for unfair treatment of workers.
In 2012, the SEIU, which is backing the Fight for $15 movement, was the top outside spender on Democratic campaigns, dispensing almost $70 million on television ads and get-out-the-vote efforts.
“We see the presidential campaign as a way to elevate and escalate the issues that matter most to the overwhelming majority of working Americans who are having to stitch together two and three jobs in order to make ends meet,” said Mary Kay Henry, the president of the SEIU.
‘Thawing’ on Labor
The propulsion of labor issues to the forefront of discourse among Democratic candidates follows a “thawing” of the topic during the 2016 election, led in large part by Senator Bernie Sanders, said Steve Rosenthal, the former political director of the AFL-CIO.
“I actually think this is the most pro-union, pro-worker crop of candidates we’ve seen in decades,” Rosenthal said. “We went through many election cycles where union activists, after going to see one of the presidential candidates, the question would be did he or she use the ‘u-word,’ meaning did they even talk about unions.”
Rosenthal added that raising the minimum wage and supporting unionizing efforts are increasingly popular among voters, making it more advantageous for candidates to support the issue.
As for the workers, they are looking for candidates to present specific policy proposals about the ways in which their administrations would bring about the changes they are demanding.
“We need politicians to use their pulpit to bring corporations like McDonald’s to the table,” said Terrence Wise, a McDonald’s worker in Kansas City, Missouri, and an organizer with the Fight for $15 movement. “We need them to start using that influence and power to help workers instead of legislation and things I’ve seen in that past that has harmed them.”
--With assistance from Emma Kinery, Craig Giammona and Josh Eidelson.
To contact the reporter on this story: Tyler Pager in Las Vegas at email@example.com
To contact the editors responsible for this story: Joe Sobczyk at firstname.lastname@example.org, Max Berley, Laurie Asséo
For more articles like this, please visit us at bloomberg.com
©2019 Bloomberg L.P.