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Protesters from over 30 organisations held demonstrations against companies considered to be worst low-wage employers

By Andrea Palatnik

July 26, 2011

From midtown to Union Square to Gramercy Park; from nurses to retail and fast-food workers to clerics: thousands of demonstrators and 30 community and labor organizations took part in a city-wide protest demanding better jobs and salaries for low-wage workers.

The date, 24 July, was picked to mark the last time a raise was applied to the American minimum wage, which reached $7.25 three years ago and has been stalled ever since. According to a report published this week by and the Alliance for a Greater New York (Align), four in 10 households in New York City are sustained by low-wage workers.

"There's got to be a way to show that workers need a lot more money to help support their families and their communities," said Derrick Cancy, 24, who works at Newark Liberty International Airport in New Jersey for Air Serv, an airline contractor listed by the report as one of the five worst low-wage employers in New York City.

Cancy makes $8 an hour and says the company doesn't offer any benefits or paid sick days, despite the fact that its workers are constantly exposed to the loud noise and toxic fumes produced by the airplanes.

"I've never heard of companies that run out of business because of a wage increase," added Cancy. "I hope this [demonstration] will give us a little bit of an edge." He joined the protest at Herald Square in midtown Manhattan, from where it headed downtown to Union Square.

The protest included two main marches and parallel actions in car washes in Queens, Brooklyn and Harlem (car washes are considered the worst low-wage employer in the city, with more than half of surveyed workers putting in 60 to 80 hours a week to make minimum wage). In Manhattan, short demonstrations were staged on the doorsteps of some of the US's worst low-wage employers, according to another report: Toys R Us, Target (Burlington Coat Factory), JCPenney and Dunkin' Donuts, among others.

This study, published by the labor policy thinktank National Employment Law Project (Nelp), points out that the majority (66%) of low-wage workers in the US are employed by large corporations with more than 100 employees, countering the common perception that low salaries are paid mostly by small companies struggling to get by.

The Nelp report also shows that, despite the recession that still haunts the American economy, the 50 largest low-wage employers in the country can't complain about revenue levels: 92% of them were profitable last year, while 78% have been profitable for the last three years and at least 75% are making more money now than before the crisis hit.

"Since recent research published in the top professional journals finds no negative employment effects – zero – the current jobs crisis is actually a perfect time to increase the national legal minimum," says David Howell, a labor market expert from The New School in New York.

A $7.25 minimum wage is "far below the $8.68 value in the late 1960s (in 2010 dollars) and helps explain why the US has by far the largest share of low-wage workers in the developed world," added Howell.

During Tuesday's protest, demonstrators held signs for each of the companies listed in the two studies with phrases like "JCPenney pays us pennies", "Outback: low-wage house", "America loses on Dunkin" and "Cheap-Otle: workers hell!".

Oscar Otzoy, a 28-year-old farm worker born in Guatemala, came from Florida to New York to participate in the protest. He says agricultural workers in the tomato farms of Immokalee, Florida – one of the main food suppliers for Mexican food chain Chipotle – have to pick a minimum of 4,800 pounds of tomatoes a day to make minimum wage.

"Somedays we have to stay in the field for more than 12 hours to reach this amount," said Otzoy, who immigrated to the US six years ago.

To read the full article visit The Guardian US News Blog