PR Challenge: Fast Food Workers Stage Mass Walk-Offs

The fast food industry can’t seem to catch a break these days.

Just kidding, those chains make billions of dollars a year—and most have seen their profits increase during the recession. But their employees are another story: they keep trying to unionize! What’s that all about?

Thursday saw a successful blunt-force trauma PR campaign waged by New York City fast food employees with the backing of churches, civil rights groups and labor unions–all united under the Fast Food Forward banner and the “can’t survive on $7.25” tagline. The first group of workers walked off the job at a Manhattan McDonald’s at 6:30 in the morning, when supporters gathered with signs demanding higher pay and better benefits. More followed suit throughout the day.

The struggle to unionize has a long history in nearly every industry, but yesterday apparently marked the first time that so many have left work en masse at dozens of different restaurants in a coordinated effort to pressure employers.

Some basic facts: The average New York City fast food employee makes approximately $7.25/hour, earning only $11,000 per year. This total obviously doesn’t amount to a living wage in a city like New York—and organization is particularly challenging in an industry with such a high turnover rate. Some also claim that their employers do not offer sufficient sick days or health care benefits. Their collective demands include hourly wages in the range of $15, which would be a substantial increase.

From a distance, this looks like a textbook case of terrible PR.

Of course, advocates and opponents have very strong, expertly argued opinions on the value of unions and the rights of affected employees (or the lack thereof). But we’re more concerned with the very obvious PR challenges these establishments now face. This video, created by “independent and uncompromising journalism” site The Real News, may come from an ideologically sympathetic place, but it includes some powerful images that the representatives of McDonald’s, Wendy’s, Burger King and others must move to address.

How will they go about it? Will they issue bland company statements? Will they recruit executives to write op-eds like this one from the president of Walmart West, who argues that a vast majority of the retail giant’s workers “love” their jobs and that those who side with the protesters are somehow disrespecting Walmart employees at large? Or will they simply keep quiet and wait for the wave to pass?

Fast food brands are notoriously resilient. Will this challenge prove too big for them to handle?

We doubt it.