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Fast Food Shouldn't Mean Low Wages

Catherine Ruetschlin

From Burger King to Walmart, the low-wage workers we depend on to staff America’s consumption-driven economy are tired of being overworked and underpaid, and they are letting their bosses know. 

Early this morning, fast-food workers in New York City went on strike across more than half a dozen chains, including McDonald’s, Burger King, Domino’s, KFC, Taco Bell, Wendy’s and Papa John’s. Backed by community groups like New York Communities for Change, United NY, and the Black Institute, as well as various representatives of religious organizations, fast food workers are asking for a chance to work with dignity in an industry notorious for its fast pace, low wages, and often erratic scheduling. Also notorious for high turnover, fast food workers have historically had a difficult time organizing for better conditions. 

As reported by Steve Greenhouse at the New York Times:

Leaders of the effort said that workers were walking off the job to protest what they said were low wages and retaliation against several workers who have backed the unionization campaign. They said it would be the first multi-restaurant strike by fast-food workers in American history.

The historic strikes occur at a time when low wage jobs are taking on an increasing share of the labor market. Food preparation -- including fast food -- contributes to the low-wage trend, ranking in the top ten for projections of largest employment growth for the decade to 2020 at 14.8 percent, while paying a median wage of less than $9 per hour.  

Greenhouse reports:

According to the State Labor Department, median pay for fast-food workers in the city is around $9 an hour — or about $18,500 a year for a full-time worker. . . .

Linda Archer, a cashier at the McDonald’s on 42nd Street just west of Times Square, said she wished she earned that much. She earns $8 an hour after three years there and averages 24 hours a week, she said, meaning her pay totals about $10,000 a year.

With low pay and a constant struggle for more hours on the clock, many fast food workers live below the poverty line, relying on public assistance to get by even after several years with a company.  Meanwhile, McDonald’s earned $5.5 billion in profits in 2011 and boosted earnings for shareholders by 15 percent. 

But the workers and supporters quoted in the Times suggest that their cause is about more than economics -- it is about treating people fairly and offering the opportunity to work with pride.

Greenhouse quotes one religious official who identifies the allied interests of his work and the strikers’ goals:

I’ve become involved because it is primarily a matter of justice,” said the Rev. Michael Walrond of the First Corinthian Baptist Church in Harlem. “We seek to protect those who are the most vulnerable in our culture, and some of the most vulnerable people in the city are fast-food workers who work for poverty wages.

The strike against fast-food restaurants in New York City comes on the heels of nationwide protests and worker walkouts against Walmart last week on Black Friday. As I documentend in a recent Demos report, retail workers -- like fast-food workers -- are barely getting by. Raising their average wages to $25,000 a year would lift hundreds of thousands of retail workers out of poverty and also pump badly needed new spending money into the economy.

These same arguments can and should be made about employees at places like McDonald's. Fast food needn't mean low wages.