Bernie Sanders wants McDonald’s to pay $15 an hour

The Vermont senator and former presidential candidate told the company in a letter that it needs to raise wages.
Photograph by Jonathan Maze

Bernie Sanders, long critical of the wage rates that major corporations pay their front-line workers, is turning his eyes toward McDonald’s.

The Vermont senator, a Democratic presidential candidate in 2016, urged McDonald’s CEO Steve Easterbrook to follow the example of Amazon, Whole Foods and the Walt Disney Co. and start paying a minimum of $15 an hour. He also wants the company to allow the workers to form a union, lending his voice to the Fight for $15 movement.

“If McDonald’s raised the minimum wage to $15 an hour and respected the constitutional rights of your workers to form a union it would set an example for the entire fast food industry to follow,” Sanders said in the letter, which he posted on his Twitter feed Thursday.

In a statement, McDonald’s defended its efforts to improve benefits to the workforce, noting that the company has provided tuition assistance and other benefits.

“This year alone, we have tripled tuition assistance for restaurant employees by allocating $150 million over five years to our Archways to Opportunity education program to provide upfront college tuition assistance, earn a high school diploma and access free education advising services,” the company said. “These benefits show McDonald’s and its independent franchisees’ commitment to providing jobs that fit around the lives of restaurant employees so they may pursue their education and career ambitions.”

McDonald’s has 14,000 locations in the U.S., but the company operates just 740 of them. Franchisees operate the rest and therefore control pay rates.

Wage rates in many areas have been rising rapidly amid low unemployment rates, fewer teens who are working and industry expansion. Pay rates into the mid-teens, well above local minimum wages, are increasingly common.

Pledges by retailers and other companies to raise their pay rates are contributing to the phenomenon, helping push up the wages that many restaurants have to pay if they’re to get workers. Amazon recently said it would raise its minimum pay to $15 an hour, ahead of a retail hiring season in which many companies are ramping up hiring in anticipation of strong demand.

In his letter, Sanders argued that many McDonald’s employees need public assistance to survive. “Today, McDonald’s pays wages that are so low that many of its workers need food stamps, Medicaid and public housing to survive,” he wrote. “According to one study, U.S. taxpayers are subsidizing the low pay at McDonald’s to the tune of $1.2 billion a year. In my view, that is unacceptable.”

Sanders noted that McDonald’s generated $5.1 billion in profits and paid shareholders $7.7 billion in dividends and stock buybacks.

“If McDonald’s can afford to give its shareholders $7.7 billion, it can afford to pay all of its workers $15 an hour,” Sanders wrote.

He praised the “200 brave fast-food workers” who “kicked off the Fight for $15 at a McDonald’s in New York City” six years ago. And he noted that several states and cities, including New York, California, Massachusetts, Washington D.C., Seattle, Minneapolis and Flagstaff, Ariz., are all raising their minimum wage to $15 an hour.

“With more than a fifth of the country on the path to $15 an hour, it’s time for McDonald’s to listen to the needs of its workers and join the growing number of companies paying its workers a living wage,” Sanders wrote.

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