On this date in 2013, only two years ago, fast-food workers in restaurant chains such as McDonald’s, Burger King, Wendy’s, Subway and Domino’s Pizza, walked off their jobs and demonstrated in the thousands for a higher paycheck – $15 an hour.
The federal minimum wage at that time was $7.25 an hour – and still is! The nation looked on with admiration and wonderment at this seemingly quixotic demand to more than double wages. Strikers appeared on the streets in front of fast-food restaurants in New York City, Milwaukee, Detroit, Chicago, St. Louis, Kansas City, Mo., and Flint, Mich. They also demanded the right to form a union and warned of a vigorous response if owners retaliated against them.
The contemporary movement for higher wages was inspired by the 2011 Occupy movement, which made it clear to the nation that economic inequality had reached proportions not known since before the economic crash of 1929. The Service Employees International Union and other unions and local action groups have provided funds and organizing personnel to the minimum-wage workers’ movement.
The minimum wage has not risen since 2007, and prices on everything have gone up considerably since then. Real wages have actually declined precipitously in the years since, as the 1 percent have sucked up almost every penny of profit and worker productivity in the recovery from the long 2008 recession.
Even President Obama’s call to raise the wage to $9 an hour not only got no traction from the GOP-controlled Congress, but minimum-wage workers themselves said it’s still not a living wage, and insisted on $15.
A number of states and cities have dealt with congressional inaction by passing higher minimum wage laws, in some places up to $15 an hour by the year 2020, such as recently in Los Angeles, which will also include a cost of living adjustment.
Fast food companies – such as McDonald’s, with over 14,000 locations just in the U.S. alone – have made the claim that their franchises are individually and locally owned, and that the corporate headquarters does not set wage and employment policies. Recent court cases have largely debunked that argument, deciding that the eateries are not that independent.
Fast-food titans take down salaries averaging over $15 million for top CEOs, while American workers in the bottom 20 percent – 28 million employees – are paid less than $9.89 an hour ($20,570 a year for a full-time worker). Income in that sector has actually fallen 5 percent since 2006. But the situation is actually worse than that: Many employers keep their work staff on for less than full-time hours per week, thus avoiding the need to provide benefits.
Fast-food corporations like to claim that it’s mostly teenagers working a few after-school hours a week who are the majority of their employees, with a high turnover rate. But studies have shown a very different picture: Most employees are adults who rely on this job as their primary income, for themselves and in many cases for their family as well. And if they wanted to find other work, there is none available.
One complaint fast-food workers have made – echoed in other low-wage industries as well – is that their lives are thrown into chaos because managers post work schedules so erratically, and so late, and often so punitively, that it’s impossible for workers to plan their week to commit regular hours for a second job, or for classes, or even for child care. Almost every fast-food workers can show you their burns and scrapes from the job.
The mood of the working class has shifted dramatically in the two years since those first brave walkouts. The demand for $15 an hour has spread across the country. If one city passes $15, the neighboring city will feel the pressure to do so as well. And if the lowest-paid workers will receive $15 an hour, that will in theory bump up wages for everyone.
The movement is more than just about wages; it’s about consciousness as well. Sen. Bernie Sanders’s campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination on the part of is a direct offshoot of this new wave of anti-corporate populism in America, and has already begun changing the conversation in America.
Photo: A Fight for 15 demonstration during 2014 in Los Angeles. | Rossana Cambron/PW