Suddenly The Movement Supersizes—Fast Food Strikes Would Redeem King’s Dream

  • 09/06/2013
  • Terelle Jerricks

By Paul Rosenberg, Senior Editor

“Nobody who is willing to work hard should have to live in poverty,” said Rob Tejada, a 19-year-old McDonald’s worker who went out on strike on Aug. 29. Tejada works side-by-side with parents who are trying to raise families on near-minimum-wage pay.

That sentiment used to be regarded as virtually axiomatic, but it’s now regarded as revolutionary—even utopian. And, in some ways it always has been.

The day after the 50th anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, thousands of fast food workers like Tejada went out on a one-day strike in 58 cities. They had a key demand: to increase pay to $15 per hour. That’s more than double the federal minimum wage of $7.25 per hour and 67 percent higher than the $8.94 per hour median wage for front-line fast-food workers.

It’s the fourth such one-day strike since just after Thanksgiving of this past year. It began in just one city: New York. But the number of cities involved has exploded from just seven in the last round to more than eight times that just a few weeks later. These cities include Los Angeles and San Diego, here in Southern California, as well as Southern cities from Texas to Georgia and the Carolinas—places that have always been quite hostile to workers organizing.
Rev. William Smart, president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, a representative of the faith community supporting the strikes, drew a direct connection between the march, the strike and conference’s support for both.

“At SCLC we’re concerned about the wages of workers,” Smart said. “Part of the dream was that workers can get good jobs and good wages… This is a low-wage industry… an industry that doesn’t have to be. Fast food is a billion-dollar industry, it’s continually making profits, but that never gets down to the workers. so we need to organize so that the workers can get a fair share of the profits by increasing their wages.”
Smart also commented on the March on Washington.

“Remember it was jobs and freedom,” Smart said. “And part of the jobs, we called for a minimum wage of $2 an hour. And the equivalent of that today is close to $15 to $15.27 [an hour].”

It was not surprising, therefore, when Georgia Rep. John Lewis—the only surviving speaker from the 1963 March—joined the fast-food strikers in Atlanta after seeing media reports about them.

“Fifty years ago, yesterday, when I was 23 years old, had all of my hair and a few pounds lighter, we marched for jobs and freedom,”Lewis told the crowd of strikers and supporters. “We’re still marching for jobs…. We need more than a minimum wage, we need a livable wage. I do not understand how people survive when they are being paid starvation wages. In a country like ours we can do much better.”

Indeed, according to calculations by economist Dean Baker, co-director of the Center for Economic Policy Research, the minimum wage today would already be well over $15 per hour, if the minimum wage had kept up with productivity growth since 1969 — as it had for the previous 22 years.

“That’s like a job for a high school student, maybe, who still lives with their parents,” said Tejada , regarding what he’s now being paid. “But not for someone who has two or three kids and has to pay full rent, among some other bills.”

But you don’t have to take Tejada’s word for it. Thanks to the energy, courage, imagination and passion of fast-food strikers before him, the national media has already taken note and recognized the basic truth of their argument.

As the New York Times noted in an Aug. 7 editorial: “The fast-food workers who have been walking off their jobs illustrate a central fact of contemporary work life in America: As lower-wage occupations have proliferated in the past several years, Americans are increasingly unable to make a living at their jobs. They work harder and are paid less than workers in other advanced countries. And their wages have stagnated even as executive pay has soared.”

“Seventy percent of these fast-food workers are aged 20 or over; so they’re not teenagers; and, of that 70 percent, about a third of them have college degrees,” Robert Hiltonsmith, a policy analyst at Demos, told Reuters News.

Such basic facts fly directly in the face of derogatory, demonizing comments from conservative strike critics that tried—and largely failed—to disrupt the flow of enthusiastic tweeting the day of the strike. One particularly active troll produced the following, among others:

      • There are winners and losers if you are striking you are probably the latter and #workforminimumwage
      • if you Get high 3 times a day and just love your dreadlocks you probably #workforminimumwage
      • if you did not graduate high school twenty years ago and just now getting a GED you may #workforminimumwage
      • if you spent most of Math class working on Rap lyrics you may #workforminimumwage

But the simple fact is, the minimum wage is well below what it was in the 1960s, while education levels are much higher today than they were then. What’s more, the fast food sector is not alone in being mired in low-wage work. It’s an affliction that affects the entire restaurant industry, as revealed in a 2011 study, “Behind the Kitchen Door,” conducted by the Restaurant Opportunities Center of LA, in conjunction with UCLA. There are 276,000 people working the region’s restaurant industry. Among the survey’s findings:

The median hourly wage for Los Angeles restaurant workers has actually declined over the past 20 years, and in 2009 was only $9.24 per hour—just $.30 per hour more than the national median wage for front-line fast-food workers.

      • 89.8 percent of employers do not provide health insurance
      • 89.4 percent of employees do not get paid sick days
      • 58.3 percent of employees have worked when sick
      • 44.1 percent of employees have experienced overtime wage violations; and 26.7 percent have worked “off-the-clock”
      • 42.9 percent of employees were burned and 42.4 percent were cut while on the job

The combination of low-pay, wage theft, lack of benefits and unsafe working conditions shows that fast food workers are remarkably similar to restaurant workers as a whole—and, indeed, to low-wage workers across the economy, which is a big part of why their strikes have resonated so powerfully.

“The strikes reflect the need of a huge portion of the workforce, which is service workers, food service workers, restaurant workers who cannot live on minimum wage,” said Sophia Cheng, research and policy coordinator at ROC-LA.

What’s more, she pointed out the tipped minimum wage—$2.13 per hour—has not been raised in 20 years.

“Overall, when you’re raising the minimum wage, as workers we have more in our pockets to spend,” Cheng said. So there’s been a lot of studies to show that increasing the minimum wage actually helps the economy, rather than killing jobs.”

So she strongly supports increasing the minimum wage. But benefits are also crucial. Especially sick days.

“Paid sick days would be a very tangible type of benefit restaurant workers need that not only benefits workers, but also benefits the public, because it’s a food safety issue,” Cheng explained.

The restaurant industry bitterly fought against paid sick days in San Francisco a few years ago. But a follow-up study showed that most employers are pleased with how things have turned out, while most employees use only a fraction of the sick days they earn, but feel much more secure on a daily basis.

One last thing, Cheng adds, is the role of race and gender, concentrating women and people of color in the lowest-paid and hardest jobs.

“So it’s actually a gender issue as well, which is why some prominent feminists like Sandra Fluke have come out to support the fast food strike today in LA,” Cheng said.

For an even broader view, in a Bloomberg News op-ed in mid-June, “The Capitalist’s Case for a $15 Minimum Wage,” venture capitalist Nick Hanauer wrote:

The fundamental law of capitalism is that if workers have no money, businesses have no customers. That’s why the extreme, and widening, wealth gap in our economy presents not just a moral challenge, but an economic one, too. In a capitalist system, rising inequality creates a death spiral of falling demand that ultimately takes everyone down.

The op-ed was accompanied by a cartoon comparing the current minimum wage to the pre-Copernican, geocentric worldview, and the $15 per hour minimum wage to the modern, heliocentric world view. But the insight—though valid—is not really all that new. As far back as Adam Smith—and beyond—economic thinkers understood the circular nature of economic well-being.

In Book 1, Chapter 8 of The Wealth of Nations, Smith wrote:

Servants, labourers and workmen of different kinds, make up the far greater part of every great political society. But what improves the circumstances of the greater part can never be regarded as an inconvenience to the whole. No society can surely be flourishing and happy, of which the far greater part of the members are poor and miserable. It is but equity, besides, that they who feed, clothe and lodge the whole body of the people, should have such a share of the produce of their own labour as to be themselves tolerably well fed, clothed and lodged.

Those are the words of the so-called “father of capitalism.” How little they resemble the words of capitalists today. But even that could still change, with organized pressure from below.

“What you have to do is stick together and never, ever give up or give in,” Lewis told the strikers in Atlanta. “They said back in the 60s, we couldn’t win. that we couldn’t get a civil rights act; that we couldn’t get a voting rights act; we couldn’t get a fair housing act, but we did it… Sometimes you have to find a way to make a way out of no way.”
He should know.

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