• Kelly O

Twenty-year-old Carlos Hernandez, wearing a black hoodie over his ketchup-colored Subway uniform, walked into his workplace on Capitol Hill this morning holding a letter for his manager. Seattle City Council member Mike O'Brien, along with a throng of supporters and reporters, followed him in.

"The people work very hard, they just push you," Hernandez told me before going inside, his voice hoarse from hollering at rallies yesterday. "They're just pushing, pushing, pushing, pushing. Subway is like one of the biggest chain companies, bigger than McDonald's, and they don't care about their people. They just care about their money."

The manager wasn't there, so O'Brien called him. "I was just escorting a couple of your workers back to work today," O'Brien said. "Carlos is returning to work unconditionally for his regular shifts. And I want to remind you that the workers have a federally protected right to strike—" The manager stopped him, saying he'd already heard that spiel three times this morning.

More than a dozen workers from seven different fast food chains—Arby's, Chipotle, Qdoba, Subway, McDonald's, Taco Del Mar, Taco Bell—walked back on the job today. O'Brien, King County Council members Rod Dembowski and Larry Gossett, and State Representative Gerry Pollet were among those accompanying them.

Reportedly, none of the workers have been fired. "I'm not firing nobody," Hasan Zeer, a franchise owner of eight Subway locations in Seattle, including the Capitol Hill location, later told me by phone. "But to go [off the job] without calling me—that's very bad. Very bad."

Zeer sounded upset. "If you want $15 or $20, you can go to Amazon or Microsoft, they're hiring," he said. "We are a franchise company, we are struggling to survive." He said some of his stores aren't making money or are in debt.

"They're walking off because of pressure from outsiders," Zeer said. "But this is fast food, you don't expect to make money from selling a sandwich for $3. They have to understand that." He says he urges his workers to use their positions as springboards to better jobs.

As if to damn them with faint praise, Subway calls its employees Sandwich Artists™ in press materials. The phrase is literally trademarked. This seems contrary to the idea that these are unskilled jobs for young people. In fact, only 16 percent of fast food jobs are held by teenagers now, down from 25 percent a decade ago, according to government statistics. (A Subway corporate spokesperson has not responded to requests for comment.)

"The minute the minimum wage goes high, I tell you, the fast food restaurants will collapse," Zeer warned. He drew a contrast with local hamburger-and-shakes favorite Dick's. "Dick's one day sale is like one week of my Subway sale."

That's not hyperbole, according to Jim Spady, vice president of Dick's. He says the company is in a "special position" because it's been here for years and owns its land, whereas Subway franchises have to pay rent.

"Dick's provides the best pay and benefits in the fast food industry," Spady says. Wages start at $10 an hour, go up to $10.50 after three months, and are then subject to merit raises. There's healthcare coverage and eligibility for a scholarship if you work for more than 20 hours a week.

"But you can't just wave a magic wand," he cautioned, "and say everyone earns 50 percent more than they did yesterday." He said some workers would benefit but many would lose their jobs. He even raised the prospect of employees being replaced with "vending machines" if the cost of labor goes above the productivity of the employee.

A host of local Democrats have come out in support of the fast food strikes and say they support a living wage. But staffers for both Mayor Mike McGinn and Council Member O'Brien refused to say how much that wage should be. Fast food strikers are calling for a raise to $15 per hour. That's still $1.54 below what the wage would be if it had kept up with inflation rises in productivity since 1968.

"The reason the mayor and all these Democrats won't say anything about the actual figures," socialist city council candidate Kshama Sawant says, "is you have to take on big business." Sawant is calling for an across-the-board wage increase in Seattle to $15 per hour. "What's happening in Sea-Tac is a great example of how this could be done," she says.

And the data seems overwhelming. Raising wages would have a negligible impact on employment, a review of the last decade of data published by the left-leaning Center for Economic Policy Research found. There were no significant job losses when President Harry Truman nearly doubled the minimum wage in 1950. "The argument that it's going to hurt your economy—which has been made since the beginning—has pretty much been discredited," the mayor of Santa Fe, which enacted a wage hike tied to price indexes, said last year.

  • Ansel Herz

Sawant says corporations should pay higher taxes to help subsidize the cost of living for workers. Subway, which now has more restaurants globally than McDonald's, earned $15.2 billion in revenue in 2011. According to Reuters, Subway International "reaps around $150 million each year in royalty payments from franchisees in Europe" by routing the income through the Caribbean island of Curacao, "which offers tax exemptions on overseas income."

"In the fast food industry, the real power is in the corporate brands," Service International Employees Union vice president David Rolf told me yesterday as workers held a rally at Denny Park. "If you become a union, then you're locked into bargaining with a specific franchisee... I think it's more important to disrupt the status quo than to try to fit people into an existing legal framework."

I asked Rolf what the end game here is. "We're starting. This is a beginning. Eight weeks ago, there weren't any of these [strikes]." He lists off the cities where they've now taken place: New York, Chicago, St. Louis, Milwaukee, Detroit, and DC. "I think we have to see if we can build a movement. I hope we can find the momentum here."