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

"We're paying a few cents less for a hamburger and fries which aren't very good for you, but we end up paying large sums through social safety net programs," labor economist Mark Price said. "There's definitely a role for public policy to help workers who are low income, but there's no reason that the cost of goods in this industry shouldn't reflect the actual cost of living."

The timing of this campaign in New York comes as Governor Andrew Cuomo and the state legislature are under pressure to raise the state minimum wage, and a battle over paid sick days for New York City workers remains stalemated in the City Council. Bernhardt noted that to really improve conditions for low-wage workers in New York, "It's going to take both public policy intervention in terms of raising the minimum wage as well as organizing workers to lift the wage floor in this sector."

THE SCOURGE OF LOW-WAGE SERVICE JOBS

Low-wage employers have been hearing lots of rumblings of discontent lately, from Walmart to New York's Hot and Crusty bakery, and today, with workers like Harris saying they're tired of being treated like animals, having orders barked at them. And New York has conditions that make it easier to organize than many other places--with fast food restaurants clustered block by block, Shaiken noted, and a union-friendly climate, it could help light a spark that could spread.

"What's going on here in New York city is people taking their economic welfare into their own hands and organizing to raise their own wages," Price said. "We're going to be stuck in this cycle of a slowly growing economy with high unemployment. The only way to reverse that is to get wage growth, particularly at the bottom and the middle." And the best way to get wage growth when unemployment is still high is for them to organize.

Yet unions have been in decline for over thirty years, with just about 7 percent of the private sector organized. Part of that is the changes in how we work, said Stephen Lerner, longtime labor organizer and architect of the groundbreaking Justice for Janitors campaign. "You used to have factories with thousands of people, it was easier to build solidarity. But work has disaggregated, people are now working at very small worksites, often with it being unclear who owns the place. All of that becomes exacerbated in places where wages are really low, turnover is high. There's a whole set of things that make it harder for workers to join together."

"It's a very tough challenge," Shaiken noted, "but ultimately so was organizing industrial unions in the middle of the Great Depression."

What we've seen with Walmart and now with the fast food workers is an independent organization, supported by traditional labor unions (in this case, the Service Employees International Union along with New York Communities for Change, United NY, and the Black Institute), can be more creative in its organizing tactics. Lerner is particularly inspired by the one-day strike that the workers are undertaking today. "The old strike, you used to go out and stay out until you win. But the workers now are so angry and mistreated an the way you express that is short-term walkouts."

In the Walmart strikes, in the Justice for Janitors campaign, and now in New York, Lerner noted, organizers have moved to find strategies that make sense to workers, that aren't trapped in the same old formulations that worked in factories but don't make sense for food service. "The key thing is not letting how workers organize be defined by the legal regime which has not only failed to protect workers but also was constructed for a very different kind of workplace," Lerner said.

"For so long, a lot of labor and other folks have avoided these industries because they thought they were too low wage, too hard to organize, and now our economy has become an economy of mostly low wage service jobs," Westin said. "It was the same thing when they were organizing factories in the early 1900s. They organized those factories and lifted an entire segment of the population into the middle class. This could happen here. We could lift an entire segment of the US population out of poverty and into the middle class."

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

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