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Maine Group Protests Outside Fast Food Restaurant
08/29/2013   Reported By: Jay Field

Fast food workers in more than 50 cities walked the picket line today in a nationwide protest over low wages in the industry. The strikes are the latest in a series of walkouts that began last fall. Workers, with backing from organized labor, are calling for the minimum wage to be raised from $7.25 to $15 an hour. As Jay Field reports, a handful of older residents, who struggled for years to survive in low wage jobs, protested in solidarity today in Ellsworth.

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Shelia O'Neil says she has an idea what life may be like for some of the workers in the building behind her. O'Neil is standing along Route 3 in Ellsworth, in front of a McDonalds. "I worked for 40 years for never much more than minimum wage - at a supermarket," she says.

O'Neil says she made $2 an hour during her first year at a Pathmark in New Jersey. "I raised my son. It was really hard."

Living in poverty requires a certain resourcefulness. O'Neil says she developed her survival skills years before she arrived at the grocery store.

"When I was a teenager, we used to have to go - we lived in New York City - and we used to go in between the buildings, looking for milk," she says. "That's before they had food stamps. That's how poor we were."

O'Neil lives in Ellsworth now, a retiree with little money and no health insurance. She's come to stand in front of this McDonalds, she says, because she doesn't want another generation of young people to struggle the way she has.

The current federal minimum wage is $7.25 an hour. That's adds up to roughly $15,000 a year for full-time employees. Some economists, business leaders and members of Congress are calling for a modest hike. President Obama would like to push it to $9.00 an hour.

A small, but growing and vocal, coalition of fast food workers say that's not good enough and have been striking every few months, with organizing help and assistance from the Service Employees International Union.

Chanting: "Old MacDonald, pay fair wages, E-I-E-I-O!"

"The fast food industries are very wealthy," says John Curtis, who helped organize the Ellsworth protest. "They make a lot of money. So we think they ought to pay their hard-working workers a little bit more."

Curtis, who's a member of the letter carriers union, holds a sign that reads "$15 dollars an hour." That's the wage that fast food workers are demanding to be paid. Those on the lower rungs of the economic ladder are more likely to be forced into reliance on government programs like food stamps. Supporters of such a minimum wage increase argue that it will also benefit higher wage earners, who end up subsidizing these government assistance programs through the taxes they pay.

"When workers see that they have support in the community, they're more likely to take a stand for themselves," says Arnie Alpert, who's from Canterbury, New Hampshire. Alpert pulled off the road on his way home from the Lubec area to join the protest.

"McDonalds or Burger King or Wendy's - when they see that there are people in their communities dispersed all over the country who are ready to get out in public and stand up for the rights of workers, then they're more likely to realize they need to give a bit also," Alpert says.

But that may be an overly optimistic view of what's likely to happen. In a statement, the National Retail Federation, which represents the fast food chains, denounced the strikes. "These orchestrated 'strikes' and walkouts create headlines," the group said, "but do nothing to foster serious discussion about effective policies to create jobs in today's still-struggling economy."


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