McJobs Should Pay, Too: Inside Fast-Food Workers' Historic Protest For Living Wages

As low-wage service jobs become the new normal for millions of families, we should rethink the balance of power between fast-food workers and their corporations

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Reuters

The term "McJob" has come to epitomize all that's wrong with the low-wage service industry jobs that are growing part of the U.S economy. "It beats flipping burgers," the cliché goes, because no matter what your job might be, it's assumed to be better than working in a fast-food restaurant.

Today in New York City, though, hundreds of workers at dozens of fast-food chain stores are walking out on strike, demanding better of those jobs. At McDonald's, Burger King, Wendy's, KFC, Taco Bell, and Domino's Pizza locations, workers have been organizing, and today they launch their campaign. They want a raise, to $15-an-hour from their current near-minimum wage pay, and recognition for their independent union, the Fast Food Workers Committee.

Saavedra Jantuah, who works at a Burger King on 34th St. in Manhattan, explained that the $7.30 she makes per hour after two years on the job doesn't pay her enough to support her son. "I'm doing it for him, I'm going on strike so I can bring my family together underneath one household," she said. "A union can help us get to where we can make it in New York."

This is the first multi-franchise effort among fast-food workers to organize and demand better conditions, and it's coming on the heels of viral strikes at Walmart stores around the country. Yet this campaign was building before the first Walmart worker walked out. Jonathan Westin, Organizing Director for New York Communities for Change, which led the effort to organize the fast food workers, said that they've had over 40 organizers talking to workers around the city. They've found that overwhelmingly, those workers can't afford basics like food, rent, or a Metrocard to get to work.

Harley Shaiken, a professor of education and geography at the University of California at Berkeley and expert on unions and labor, explained that while we may talk about fast food and retail workers as part of the service sector, their most prominent characteristic is that they're vulnerable workers, with low wages, few or no benefits, not enough hours, and little dignity on the job. Respect is as important as a wage increase to Jantuah and Jesska Harris, who works at a Midtown Manhattan McDonald's.

"With a mild uptick in the economy, we're seeing growing protest among workers that have become invisible," Shaiken said.

'A LAST CHANCE'

The median hourly wage for food service and prep workers is a mere $8.90 an hour in New York City, according to the New York Department of Labor. But Jasska Harris still makes the federal minimum wage -- $7.25 -- after five months on the job, and struggles to get even 35 hours a week. And that minimum wage buys less than it used to. A recent study from the National Employment Law Project pointed out that the value of the minimum wage is 30 percent lower than it was in 1968.

"I don't think we can afford to write off fast food anymore as simply a sector that offers transitional jobs for teenagers," said Annette Bernhardt, policy co-director at NELP. "Increasingly working families are depending on this industry, and unless we confront the serious problem of low wages in the fast food industry, we're not going to solve the job quality problem for the labor market as a whole."

The Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that seven out of 10 growth occupations over the next decade will be low-wage fields. And these jobs are not being done by teenagers. Across the country, the median age of fast-food workers is over 28, and women -- who make up two-thirds of the industry -- are over 32, according to the BLS. 

"For a lot of people it's a second chance or even a last chance," Shaiken said.

Fast food weathered the recession, and the biggest names are seeing big profits. Yum! Brands, which runs Pizza Hut, Taco Bell and KFC, saw profits up 45 percent over the last four fiscal years, and McDonald's saw them up 130 percent. (After Walmart, Yum! Brands and McDonald's are the second and third-largest low-wage employers in the nation.) Yet those profits are not being passed on to workers like Harris and Jantuah, who remain stuck at or barely above a stagnant minimum wage.

"The question about fast food is the same question that workers have been raising about Walmart. Both of these campaigns are a window onto the larger debate on to whether America is going to have a living wage economy in the 21st century or not," Bernhardt said.

RAISE THE FLOOR

Wages in the fast-food industry have stayed low for two basic reasons. First, many are low-skill service jobs in an efficient assembly where workers are easily replaced and don't require much education. Second, there is a large supply of people who are willing to make cheap burgers at a low wage. It is easy to look at this scenario and conclude, "well, economics determines prices and wages, and that's that." But the full story is more complicated. Cheap fast food and their cheap workers impose a cost on the country in the form of food stamps, welfare through the tax code, and social safety net programs. This is a place for government to intervene -- and for corporations to sacrifice some of their profits -- by raising wages to a livable level.

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Sarah Jaffe is a freelance journalist who writes about feminism, politics, labor issues, and comic books.

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