Not much happened immediately. There was press and vocal support from organized labor and the nascent food movement. But the strike didn’t spread like wildfire.
Something else didn’t happen, however: no one lost his job. And that was a huge deal.
As far as I can determine, only one worker was permanently terminated as a result of the many actions that have followed nationwide. Usually, the striking fast-food workers are escorted back to work by co-workers, clergy, union leaders and even elected officials, who together insist that there be no retribution. That’s worked.
And so a rapidly increasing number of food industry and other retail workers are now fighting for basic rights: halfway decent pay, a real work schedule, the right to organize, health care, paid sick days, vacations and respect. Next week, organizers say, we’ll see a walkout of thousands of workers at hundreds of stores in at least seven cities, including New York and Chicago.
Something is happening here, though exactly what isn’t quite clear. Fast food was never a priority of organized labor — it’s difficult to imagine a traditional union of four million fast-food workers in something like 200,000 locations — but dozens of organizations are now involved, including, to its credit, the Service Employees International Union, which is providing financing and counsel. The upshot: Workers with nothing to lose are demanding a living wage of $15 an hour, and gaining strength and confidence.
They don’t have much else. Those making minimum wage ($7.25) and just above have less buying power than their peers did in the mid-50s. Even business leaders are beginning to recognize that forcing workers onto food stamps is no way to sustain an economy — or a society. The chief executive of Costco, Craig Jelinek, for example, has endorsed President Obama’s efforts to raise the minimum wage.
The movement found an unwitting ally when McDonald’s offered its workers a sample personal budget that included such laughable features as the need for a second job and budget lines for “Heating” (zero) and “Health Insurance” ($20). Per month. (The company, which is worth $100 billion, give or take a few bucks, now says that heat costs $50 a month. But only if you speak English; the Spanish language site budgets heat at $30.) In the old days you could say: “So what? Those workers are all teenagers. They live at home.” But the median age of today’s fast-food worker is over 29, and many are trying to support families. One estimate claims that a family of four needs nearly $90,000 a year to get by in the nation’s capital. That’s six minimum-wage jobs. Explain to me, please, how you can be pro-family and anti-living-wage simultaneously? (Many Republicans in Congress seem to manage.)
We can afford to pay these workers: a petition titled “Economists in Support of a $10.50 U.S. Minimum Wage” estimates that McDonald’s could recoup half the cost of such an increase simply by hiking the price of a Big Mac from $4 to $4.05. One item; 1 percent.
So the only reason this kind of outrage continues is that many ultrarich are denying the needs and suppressing the rights of our lowest-paid workers. These people face huge odds, but equal challenges were overcome in both the 1930s and the 1960s by bold and sometimes “crazy” actions. There was mild government support then, and that’s weaker now; but perhaps midterm elections will change that.
The recession killed 60 percent of $15- to $20-an-hour jobs, which should be the lowest-paying ones. Around 20 percent have returned, but the rest are being replaced by those paying less than $13 an hour. Thus median income for working-age households fell more than 10 percent from 2000 to 2010.
A vast majority of Americans are much closer in income to McDonald’s workers than to corporate C.E.O.’s. Yet we tolerate the fact that one in seven of our fellow Americans live in poverty, with half of those people working tough jobs. Do we want to be part of that? Surely, better scenarios exist. And victory for the lowest-wage workers will have a positive impact on wages for everyone.
Six elements are affected by the way food is produced: taste, nutrition and price; and the impact on the environment, animals and labor. We can argue about taste, but it’s clear that our production system — especially in the fast-food world — is flunking all the others. And if you think food is “cheap,” talk to the people working in the fields, factories and stores who can’t afford it. Remember: no food is produced without labor.
Well-intentioned people often ask me what they can do to help improve our food system. Here’s an easy one: When you see that picket line next week, don’t cross it. In fact, join it.