FORTUNE — Fast food workers, like big-box retail employees and others facing a void of living-wage jobs in the rocky economy, have kept their heads down, earning minimal hourly wages and no benefits — happy to have a job.
But some 400 plucky fast food workers in New York last Thursday braved possible retaliation or dismissal to strike for a pay increase that, they say, would allow them to better afford food, rent, and other basic necessities in one of the country’s most expensive cities.
They are among an estimated 50,000 people who work in New York City for some of the country’s most successful corporations like McDonald’s (MCD), Burger King (BKW), and Wendy’s (WEN) for an average $11,000 annual wage. McDonald’s had $34.2 billion in sales last year. Burger King and Wendy’s each chalked up $8.1 billion in sales, according to financial records.
Whether workers can shame the fast food empires into paying a bit more or actually begin a movement to a structural adjustment in the new wealthy corporation/poor worker economy — or wind up with an effort that is only a pop-up on the employment landscape — is to be seen.
The strike action follows walkouts last November by workers employed at retail behemoth Wal-Mart (WMT) to protest Thanksgiving Day work shifts. Longer store hours, to accommodate bargain hunters, truncated — and, for some, ended — holiday time off with their families. The same month, about 200 New York City fast food service workers held an unannounced strike and demanded a hike in wages to $15 per hour.
But those were rare efforts by low-wage workers to speak out for a better standard of living, something that is particularly chancy since the economy cratered and left a sizeable number of available jobs with minimum pay and few, if any, benefits. Such low-end jobs often have replaced jobs with salaries of $40,000 or more, sums which were enough to cover rent and food as well as transportation and insurance, according to the National Employment Law Project, an organization that campaigns for a higher hourly wage.
As the economy struggles to right itself, approximately one in 10 employed people is working in the food industry, according to federal data. In New York City alone, jobs are growing at fast food outlets more quickly than anywhere else. Since 2000, in New York City such service slots have soared 55% — adding 25,000 jobs. That is a rate five times as fast as the retail industry, where jobs have risen 11.5% — and that’s nearly 20 times faster than growth of private sector jobs in New York City. During the same period, such private sector jobs rose only 2.8%.
Nationally, fast food workers have a median age of 28, and two-thirds of them are women, according to data from the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics.
The median wage nationally for fast food workers working 40-hour weeks is now $8.76 per hour — around $18,000 a year — which is lower than all other reported occupations, including home health aides and cashiers.
While many work such jobs and move on, the low-wage, low-skill jobs are not going away. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that the most marginal jobs — in the sense that they allow the employees to eke out the barest of livings — will continue to dominate the labor market in the coming decade, leaving many with little choice of employment because so many of middle-income jobs have been permanently eliminated.
Jobs at big-box retailers and fast food chains will comprise 7 out of 10 jobs in the next decade, according to federal labor data.
To get by, retail and fast food workers often turn to taxpayer funded food stamps and Medicaid. This follows the economic pattern set by health care, where low-paid workers often use emergency room care, which is expensive and subsidized, for their routine health care because they can’t afford to pay for the health insurance that would send them to a private doctor.
The Fast Food Forward campaign is aiming to break the fast food wage spiral, said Jonathan Westin, executive director of New York Communities for Change, one of the coalition of church and community groups working to improve pay for fast-food service workers.
“The day we chose was an anniversary of the death Martin Luther King, who was in Memphis to support a strike by garbage workers, who were facing the same low wages that fast food workers do.”
Westin’s organization and the Service Employees International Union, which would like the workers to unionize, are looking at changing the fast food service industry, which historically has not been organized.
“We want to change the dynamics around their situation,” Westin said of the fast food workers. “We have a very simple plan: Corporations make billions of dollars in profits so they can afford to pay a living wage of $15 so people do not have to live in poverty.”
Westin, who says the 400 workers participating was double the number joining in the last strike action, says he hopes that more fast food workers will join future walkouts.
But Douglas McCabe, a professor of labor relations at McDonough School of Business at Georgetown University, holds out little hope for sweeping change.
“Decades ago, strikes were very common, but the number of strikes has diminished considerably as companies and managers have made it clear they are willing to replace workers.”
Other changes in the workforce also are combining to making workers less likely to band together, he said.
“Service industry workers are highly transitory and do not have the same ties that people who worked together in the same factory for years,” he said. “So union actions will continue to decline.”