During a McDonald's investor meeting on Tuesday, the company parsed the results of its new all-day breakfast initiative and heard from CEO Steve Easterbrook about the bright future of the fast-food market. After weathering sales declines over the past couple of years, the burger joint is trumpeting a big recovery. Its shares have been trading at record highs for the past month, and by the end of the meeting Easterbrook announced that the company would pay out $30 billion in dividends to shareholders — a healthy bump from the previous year.
Meanwhile, in cities across the country, thousands of fast-food and service industry workers walked off the job to demand that McDonald's and other fast food operators start paying a living wage of $15 an hour.
The contrast was not lost on Democratic senator and presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders, who addressed striking workers on the National Mall in Washington, DC early in the morning.
"In America today, what we are seeing is the richest people becoming richer, and almost everybody else becoming poorer," Sanders said, echoing the familiar notes of his stump speech. "People in this country who work 40 hours a week deserve a living wage."
The protest in DC was held as part of the nationwide Fight for 15 movement, which convened events in hundreds of cities across the United States on Tuesday. The movement is supported by the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) and has built nationwide momentum over the last year, helping win higher minimum wages in Seattle, Los Angeles, and San Francisco.
"The minimum wage initiatives across the country — happening through either legislative or ballot action — are examples of ways in which the government can raise wages, but we aren't stopping there," SEIU President Mary Kay Henry said.
Many of these increases are phased in slowly, and workers are still struggling to make ends meet.
"The money I bring home can barely take care of my rent," said Alvin Major, a 50 year-old Kentucky Fried Chicken employee in New York. Major joined a crowd of about 200 sign-carrying protesters who blocked traffic in Brooklyn on Tuesday in a bid to draw attention to the plight of low-wage workers in the country's most expensive city to live in. Minimum wage in New York is currently $8.75 an hour, a rate that lands full-time workers well below the poverty line.
In a sign that the Fight for 15 campaign is continuing to gain momentum, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo used his executive authority on Tuesday to increase the wage of government workers to $15 an hour by 2018. Still, the move will not affect the estimated over 50,000 New Yorkers who work full-time in the private sector and still earn the minimum wage. Around 1.3 million workers earn the minimum wage nationally, with an additional 1.7 million earning less than the federal floor of $7.25 an hour.
When contacted by VICE News, McDonald's said that only three workers walked off the job during Tuesday's protests. Company spokesperson Lisa McComb touted the company's decision back last summer to raise wages $1 above minimum wages in the cities where it operates.
"In July, wages at our company-owned restaurants in the US increased $1 over the locally-mandated minimum wage, which affects more than 90,000 employees," she said. "Generally speaking, the topic of minimum wage goes well beyond McDonald's — it affects our country's entire workforce. McDonald's and our independent franchisees support paying our valued employees fair wages aligned with a competitive marketplace."
Kentucky Fried Chicken, another major target of the Fight for 15, did not respond to request for comment. The efforts of Fight for 15 have helped make the minimum a major issue in the ongoing presidential campaign — at least in the Democratic Primary. It's a major point of contrast between Hillary Clinton, who calls for a $12 an hour federal minimum, and Bernie Sanders, who supports the Fight for $15.
The SEIU, for its part, has yet to endorse either candidate.
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Editor's Note: A previous version of this story stated that McDonald's held a shareholder meeting in Illinois on Tuesday. It was actually an investor meeting in New York City.