Chicago’s Fast Food Workers: “We Can’t Survive on $8.25”

April 25, 2013 | | In These Times |

On a normal day, Sonia Acuña, a petite 41-year old mother of four, puts on her bright red McDonald’s cap and reports to work at a branch of the giant hamburger chain in Chicago’s main rail terminal, Union Station. But today, in cold and drizzling early morning weather, Acuña—still wearing her McDonald’s hat—was out on the street in front of the terminal, striking.

Although she was the only worker at her McDonald’s to walk off the job today, she joined other workers on strike from other Chicago fast food and retail outlets. They delivered a pointed chant, “We can’t survive on $8.25.” As they moved through Chicago’s central shopping districts, the crowd of strikers and supporters swelled to more than 500 people.

Jobs that pay that much are increasingly difficult to find. As a study from the National Employment Law Project (NELP) demonstrates, a heavily disproportionate share of the jobs lost in the Great Recession paid medium-level wages—$14 to $21 an hour—in hard-hit sectors such as public employment, construction, finance and manufacturing. Most new jobs since the recession bottomed out have been in lower-wage sectors, such as retail sales, food preparation, warehouse work and food service, and typically pay from about $8 to $14 an hour. Overall, low-wage employment made up 21 percent of jobs lost in the recession, but 58 percent of jobs gained since the economy’s nadir.

This trend—an intensified version of longer-term shifts in the U.S. labor market—hurts the recovery by depressing consumer demand and contributes to social problems, from crime to poorer performance in schools, according to research by both NELP and Demos, a New York-based think tank, as well as reports from the WOCC.

Even employers, who ominously predict that robots will be the ones flipping hamburger if workers push for higher wages, could gain from raising pay, as productivity is likely to rise significantly, according to research by Zeynep Ton, a visiting professor at the MIT Sloan School of Management.