Massive Nationwide Walkout By Fast-Food Workers Signals Growing Backlash Against Low-Wage Employers
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The federal minimum wage, which is $7.25 an hour, was last raised in July 2009. A sub-category for tipped workers, which includes waiters, waitresses, bartenders and busboys, was last raised by Congress in 1991 and is $2.13 an hour. A majority of states and a few cities have raised these wage floors, but the industry average for 2.5 million food preparers and server is $8.75 an hour, federal labor statistics report. If tips do not bring wages up to the legal minimum, employers are supposed to make up the difference.
At McDonald’s, which has 860,000 U.S. workers, an employee making $8.75 an hour would have to work 1.6 million hours to match the CEO’s pay. Glassdoor.com, a job seach site, shows how McDonald’s thrives by paying paltry wages. It lists more than 200 job titles at McDonald’s, yet only a few—for top franchise managers or corporate executives—pay more than $10 an hour. That gulf, between a low-pay workforce and high-paid corporate management, can be closed, Thursday's strikers said.
They point to studied by progressive economists that have embarrassed McDonald’s by noting that raising the price of a Big Mac by a nickel would pay for half of a $10.10 minimum wage for its workers. Another study by ROC found that raising the federal minimum to $9.80 an hour in steps over three years would “provide a 33 percent wage increase for regular minimum wage workers and would more than double the wages of tipped workers.”
Yet according to ROC, virtually every national restaurant chain, whether fast food or full-service—with the exception of In-N-Out—refuses to pay living wages and benefits, even though most stayed profitable during the Great Recession and ongoing recovery. Moreover, the industry’s lobbying operation, led by the National Restaurant Association , repeatedly tells legislators they can’t afford better wages and benefits even as it is predicting record profits and then boasts that it is repressing living wages and benefits.
This June, NRA newsletters cited blocking 27 out of 29 states from increasing minimum wages, and stopping bills in a dozen states requiring paid sick leave. In two states that raised minimum wages, New York and Connecticut, it blocked or delayed raising the tip wage in shadowy last-minute deals. The NRA also took credit for new laws in six states that pre-empted local governments from requiring paid sick leave. The NRA claimed better wages and benefits would kill jobs, despite its forcast that profits would reach a “record” of $660.5 billion in 2013. Nonetheless, the NRA convinced Republicans, and enough Democrats, to vote against workers.
These frustrations have not stopped activists from turning to the political process, which has produced some notable victories. But it has underscored that bolder and newer strategies were needed, like direct action such as Thursday’s nationwide walkouts, as well as taking steps to put miminum wage and sick leave laws directly before voters in states that allow ballot initiatives.
“It is not organic,” said Jen Kern, national issues campaign director for Working Families , speaking of the coast-to-coast organizing. Her group was instrumental in raising the minimum wage and passing paid sick leave legislation in Connecticut and New York City. “It’s like Rosa Parks being trained. This is a serious commitment to calling out the scourge of low wages.”
The Political Score, So Far
2013 has seen some victories for the movement. State minimum wages were raised in Connecticut and New York . In Washington, D.C., a bill raising wages for employees at big retailers like Walmart is heading to the mayor’s desk this week. But, in Connecticut and New York, the NRA cut last-minute deals that left food servers and bartenders without increases. Activists say that D.C. Mayor Vincent Gray, a Democrat, is expected to veto the bill after Walmart threatened to close stores and not expand into poor neighborhoods. In Washington, which also passed local sick leave legislation in 2008, the NRA made sure it did not apply to tipped workers.