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Can you hold the fries for one day for a fast-food wage protest?

Where will you be buying your lunch on Aug. 29?

Not at a fast-food place, its workers ask. Employees at three big national fast-food chain outlets -- including those in Los Angeles -- will be putting down their deep-fat fryers and picking up picket signs. L.A.’s workers will join a one-day walkout across the country to protest wages so low that they can qualify workers for food stamps and Medi-Cal.

Head for McDonald’s, KFC or Taco Bell on Aug. 29 -- the Thursday before Labor Day -- and you may encounter employees whose presence implores you not to buy.

Nationwide, about 3.7 million people work in the fast-food business, and the walkout is pretty remarkable in an industry where employees know, and may be told, that there are 20, 30, 50 people just waiting for that job.

Workers want $15 an hour; right now the federal minimum wage is $7.25 an hour, $15,000 a year for a full-time worker, and it hasn’t gone up in four years, unlike the price of just about everything else.

The Service Employees International Union is backing the rolling walkouts for employees whose income was the source of some embarrassment last month for McDonald’s.

That fast-food company published a sample budget meant to help workers manage money. Instead, it backfired, showing that it’s almost impossible to survive on a McDonald’s wage. Here is the Forbes magazine account:

The budget drawn up by McDonald’s assumed that its employees worked two jobs, not one, and that healthcare cost him or her $20 a month -- a risible figure, when the national average is more than $200. It further fantasized a life and budget with no dollars set aside for groceries, gasoline, clothes, child care -- only a vague $100 in “other” monthly expense.

Southern Californians may remember the grocery store strike of about 10 years ago, which lasted not one day but five months. Shoppers in the thousands avoided three major grocery store chains, but in the end the contract deal was something of a wash, although both sides claimed a sort of victory.

California legislators are irked that taxpayers have to pay corporate welfare to huge and hugely profitable corporations in the form of subsidizing low-paid employees. Wal-Mart -- always at or near the top of the Fortune 500 -- employs about 1% of the American workforce, but studies have estimated that taxpayers -- that’s us -- underwrite the billionaire Waltons’ family business to the tune of $5,815 per employee, in healthcare, food stamps and subsidized housing. The California Legislature has been peeved enough at that corporate welfare to try to get that money back from Wal-Mart.

There’s a kind of lifeboat savagery to this. Some firms are cynically cutting back full-time employees’ hours just enough so the companies don’t have to provide healthcare under the new law. And companies trying to dodge paying overtime have gotten into legal hot water by classifying workers willy-nilly as managers, making them exempt from getting paid for the overtime they work, even though the only thing they may be managing is a mop and a bucket. Here’s a 2010 California court complaint against Taco Bell.

So the message that fast-food workers would like you to put on your calendar on Aug. 29 -- the Thursday before Labor Day weekend -- is, pack your own lunch.

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Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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