McDonald's deflects #Fightfor15 protests with 'America's best first job' videos

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As activists rallied for a higher minimum wage Tuesday, the fast-food giant subtly made its own argument on Twitter.

On Tuesday, low-wage workers in cities across the country took up picket signs and organized strikes, urging employers and lawmakers to embrace a $15-an-hour minimum wage.

Led by Fight for $15, the labor-funded movement that celebrated its fourth anniversary Tuesday, the workers targeted fast-food restaurants, hospitals and airports for refusing to pay what the protestors believe is a realistic living wage. As in the past, McDonald's was a prime target, with protests taking place in front of several of its locations, and many of its workers walking off the job to participate.

Though McDonald’s didn’t address the protests directly, it did present a counterargument on Twitter. Starting last week, the brand began tweeting videos advertising the perks of getting a job at the Golden Arches, especially for people just entering the work force.  At the end of each video is the tagline, "Committed to being America’s best first job," which is also found on the company’s careers site.

The latest video, posted the day before the strike, promotes the company’s tuition assistance programs for employees in high school and college. In the 30-second spot, a McDonald’s employee is cheered by his manager and colleagues as they open his college admissions letter.  

In another, posted on Nov. 21, a student employee says she likes having a job at McDonald’s because it allows her to have a flexible schedule.

The other, posted on Nov. 23, features an employee saying her job at McDonald’s gives her "more and more opportunities."

The videos are consistent with McDonald’s hands-off approach to the protests thus far. In May, the company issued a statement from spokeswoman Lisa McComb that didn’t directly address the criticism, but boasted of the brand’s role in employing "hundreds of thousands of people, providing many with their very first job." Others, including the company’s former president and CEO Ed Rensi, have noted that a $15 minimum wage would be disastrous for the brand, forcing it to cut back on labor costs and turn to automation.

Those warnings seemed to take shape earlier this month, when McDonald's announced it would soon install touchscreen self-serve kiosks in all 14,000 restaurants in the US.

"In 2013, when the Fight for $15 was still in its growth stage, I and others warned that union demands for a much higher minimum wage would force businesses with small profit margins to replace full-service employees with costly investments in self-service alternatives," wrote Rensi on Forbes.com today. "At the time, labor groups accused business owners of crying wolf. It turns out the wolf was real."

Rensi wasn’t the only one to make the connection between the new kiosks and the Fight for $15.

Nadeem Mazen, a city councilor for Cambridge, Mass., and a Fight for $15 activist, criticized the McDonald’s videos as misleading. He noted that Caylee, the employee in the Nov. 23 video, lives in Addison, Ill., which is significantly less expensive than most major cities. Indeed, the average price of a house in Addison, is $221,000, while in Cambridge, where Mazen is protesting, the average price is over $1.2 million.

"When McDonald’s has branches all over the country, and is going to pretend this woman in Addison is going to make us feel better in Cambridge, that’s not to make the public feel better, that’s to make McDonald’s executives feel better," he said. McDonald’s did not reply to a request for comment.

During the Fight for $15 strike, protestors and supporters used the trending hashtag #Fightfor15. Fight for $15 also has some famous supporters including Bernie Sanders, who has been a strong advocate for increasing the minimum wage, and actor Mark Ruffalo.

Steve Easterbrook, chief executive of McDonald’s, told the New York Times that while the brand does not plan on cutting any jobs in favor of the self-serve kiosks, employees will take on other duties, like table service. "We’ve not cutting crew; we’re redeploying them," said Easterbrook.

"The onus is on him to prove he is not lying," said Mazen. "If he’s just going to say, ‘I promise I’m not lying,’ it’s not going to be good enough for the workers and it shouldn’t be good enough for the consumers, either. If he can’t prove that that’s the case, it will be very easy to conduct a boycott in tandem with the strike. You don’t think people can’t go down the street to Wendy’s?"

McDonalds currently pays its employees an average of $9.90 an hour. The federal minimum wage, which was last raised in 2009, is $7.25.

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