Some Thoughts on the Fast Food Workers Strike

Yesterday, fast food workers in sixty cities went on strike--the biggest strike in the fast food industry so far. Backed by labor unions, other social justice organizations, and faith groups, the workers in over a thousand restaurants took off their uniforms and walked out, demanding what most workers took for granted a generation ago. They want the right to a decent, stable life--a living wage and the right to organize without retaliation. They are willing to work for that better life--obviously since they ARE and HAVE BEEN working for it. Today's workers are creating enormous wealth, but they are not benefiting from their wealth creation. The wages they receive and the dearth of benefits keep them in poverty.

     



Fast food workers are demanding that pay be raised to $15.00 per hour, and some are suggesting this amount should be the new minimum wage. Although there is widespread belief that the minimum wage should be raised, with support from President Obama and some CEO's, most proposals are for smaller increases.

Substantial pay raises for low-paid workers are not unprecedented. The growth of unionization in the first half of the Twentieth Century met with the same criticisms leveled against today's fast food workers, Walmart "associates," and temps. Yet the rise in the standard of living when union wages set the pace brought a general prosperity beyond anything seen before or since. The factory workers of that period were not considered undeserving just because their job skills could be learned by most people. They created wealth, by working hard and doing their jobs well. Those were good enough reasons for them to enjoy a decent standard of living. The same applies to today's workers, even if the jobs they have--the result of choices made by business owners and investors-- are different.

    

My own thoughts on the fast food workers' strike are largely about the people at one particular McDonald's in Northglenn. I used to live in my car, in a parking lot near that McDonald's--actually there were a lot of us there, including many seniors like me. Every morning, about 30 of us went to that McDonald's, where we got fresh coffee and, for me at least, the only hot meal of the day. We also got cheery smiles, kindness and respect, from the people who had gotten up before dawn to prepare our food. We knew they received ridiculously low wages, despite their hard work and good service. I'm very grateful to them for giving me something to look forward to on many a snowy morning.

Thinking of them now, I wonder what the presence of so many homeless seniors told those workers about their own future. My generation grew up expecting hard work to lead to success and comfort, as it did for our parents. But those glory days ended, about the time we came of age, as most of the good jobs--the non-"entry level" jobs-- started disappearing due to automation and later offshoring.

The changes in our economy didn't happen by themselves. They are largely the result of choices made by business and government leaders who prioritized extreme profits for the few over prosperity for everyone. It didn't have to be this way. Worker productivity has doubled since I got my first job in 1968, and if the minimum wage had kept pace with the growth of the U.S. economy since then, it would now be $21.16. So asking for a $15.00 hourly wage is actually letting the wealth class off cheap.

 

The average fast food worker is 35 years old and makes around $8.00 per hour. How the hell is anybody supposed to live, let alone raise a family, on that?  Many of these workers qualify for food stamps and other forms of public assistance, so the taxpayers are subsidizing the highly profitable fast food industry. And due to high productivity, raising wages to $15.00 per hour would increase the price of a Big Mac by less than 40 cents--with no change in profitability. But the pay raise is perfectly feasible without raising prices. Corporate profits during Obama's presidency have averaged 77%. During Reagan's halcyon days of corporate bliss, the average was 13%. And that isn't the only bloat in the system.  CEO pay is also up--currently 231 times the pay received by the average worker. In 1980, CEO's lived just fine on 42 times the average worker's pay. So let the CEO's and the stockholders pay the workers, instead of sticking it to the taxpayers and customers. After all, there would be no CEO's or stockholders, no Wall Street, and no fat bank accounts, without the people who do the work.

It's time for a change, and the workers are demanding change.  Fast food workers deserve your solidarity. Please support their struggle, any way you can.

Thanks to Jenny Weyel, of Colorado Progressive Coalition, for the photos.