OAKLAND -- Low-wage workers rallied outside Oakland fast-food restaurants Thursday, deterring mealtime customers but drawing support from city officials, faith leaders and labor groups as they called for a $15 hourly wage and the right to form unions.
Demonstrations hit at least 60 other cities in a national day of protest to pressure lawmakers and corporations to raise the minimum wage. While the Oakland demonstrations paled next to protests in the Midwest and East Coast -- where massive walk-outs of fast-food workers forced some restaurants to close and others were paralyzed when protestors flooded inside -- the gatherings prompted discussions about raising the minimum wage in Alameda County and the state, and underscored the widening economic gap between the Bay Area's working poor and upper-class residents.
"Our entire community is being divided," said Oakland City Council President Patricia Kernighan, who rallied with workers outside Kentucky Fried Chicken on Lake Park Avenue. "We need a middle class in this country,
She added that the state's minimum "$8 per hour is not enough to support a family in the Bay Area, and frankly, it's not enough anywhere."
The average hourly pay for a fast-food cook in Alameda and Contra Costa counties is $9.56, or $19,900 per year, according to the California Employment Development Department. A full-time worker would have to earn more than $30 per hour to meet the most minimal housing, transportation, health care and food costs in those counties.
But industry lobbying groups including the National Restaurant Association, National Retail Association and nonprofit organization Employment Policies Institute defend fast-food wages, and fast-food corporations say the jobs equip young workers with skills to move into better careers.
In a statement released Thursday, the National Retail Federation blasted the protests, saying
"Retail and restaurant companies pay competitive wages and many offer additional benefits (and) a large number of managers in these same companies started as part time or hourly employees themselves."
Many of the workers at Thursday's strike said they made minimum wage even after years on the job.
"I've been doing this for 15 years. This is my career. This is what I'm good at," said Shonda Roberts, 38, a cashier at an Oakland KFC.
She said works about 16 hours a week for $8 per hour, despite asking for a full-time schedule. With three children, she said she relies on public assistance to make ends meet.
Roberts was part of a crowd of about 100 or so protestors who blocked the entrance to KFC during lunchtime. By noon, an hour after the protest started, the restaurant was still empty.
"We probably lost every transaction while they were blocking the door," said Hector Gomez, a regional director for KFC who was at the restaurant. Gomez said store managers are paid on a percentage of store sales, not a fixed hourly wage, and would be hit with a pay cut because of the protestors.
By late afternoon, the protest had morphed into hundreds of people, with a mix of labor groups including nurses, teachers, transit and domestic workers, and dozens others joining fast-food workers at the largest rally of the day outside McDonald's by the Oakland Colesium.
Wendy Bloom, a registered nurse at Children's Hospital and Research Center in Oakland, said paying fast-food workers below-poverty wages and no benefits was a public health concern.
"Our society needs to take care of the underserved and underprivileged," she said. "We want to keep them healthy."
The protests will continue into Friday, when fast-food, restaurant and gift shop workers at Oakland Airport plan to strike starting at 7 a.m.
Oakland Mayor Jean Quan joined the protest during the day, cheering on a fight she called an extension of the civil rights movement. Oakland City Councilman Dan Kalb said he wanted Alameda County lawmakers to raise the minimum wage to $10.50 or $11 per hour to help hasten the region's economic development.
"Working poor should not be poor," he said.
Contact Heather Somerville at 510-208-6413. Follow her at Twitter.com/heathersomervil.