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Fast-Food Workers Challenge Stereotypes, Globalize Question of Fairness

(Image: Jared Rodriguez / Truthout)

During the keynote address at the Union Club in Chicago last fall, Nancy Salgado, a 26-year-old single mother of two, interrupted McDonald’s USA president Jeff Stratton’s speech, asking: “Do you think this is fair that I have to be making $8.25 when I worked for McDonald’s for 10 years?” As she was being removed under the threat of arrest, Salgado maintained her composure and offered her own answer: “The thing is that I need a raise, but you’re not helping your employees. How is this possible? We’re still living on poverty wages. And you know what, it’s not fair.” Salgado and five other activists were removed and ticketed for unlawful trespassing.

Fast-food workers like Nancy Salgado are disrupting slick corporate ad campaigns by challenging consumers to do something more revolutionary than “think outside the bun.” Workers are challenging consumers to “think outside of the self,” about the economic conditions and lives of the human beings behind the logos, catchy slogans and dollar-menu selections.

A Growing Movement

Over the last two years, fast-food protests have grown in size, expanded in participation and spread around the United States, and more recently, the globe. Workers’ demands include a “living wage” of $15 an hour and freedom to organize.

Fast-food ad campaigns have long sold Americans a consumerist vision of individuality, control and freedom, a potent message for the many who experience increasing powerlessness.

The campaign for $15 an hour was ignited when about 200 fast-food employees from multiple chains went on strike in New York City in November 2012. Subsequent protests spread to cities around the United States, including Seattle, Chicago, St. Louis, Detroit, Milwaukee and Kansas City, and have pushed the plight of fast-food laborers into the public spotlight. In 2013, protests took place in the lead-up to Labor Day in more than 30 cities around the United States, followed by late August protests in Southern and West Coast cities. On December 5, 2013, protests grew, taking place in as many as 100 cities, according to organizers. Despite routine industry claims that workers are not actually walking off the job, CNN reported that workers were indeed striking and that they were being compensated through a strike fund.

Less than one year later, protests have grown dramatically in tactical intensity and geographical scale.On May 15, 2014, fast-food workers held protests in 150 US cities, including Miami, Orlando, Philadelphia and Sacramento. With the support of the International Union of Food, Agricultural, Hotel, Restaurant, Catering, Tobacco and Allied Workers’ Associations, Americans were joined by protestors in 80 cities across more than 30 additional countries including the United Kingdom, Indonesia, Denmark, the Philippines, Japan, Belgium, New Zealand, Ireland, Brazil, India and South Korea. (1)

The median earnings for fast-food workers during 2009 and 2011 was $18,564, about $500 less than the median income for child caregivers.

Led by Fast Food Forward, which receives financial support from the Service Employees International Union, (2) activists are now engaging in coordinated civil disobedience. On May 21, 2014, hundreds descended upon McDonald’s corporate headquarters in Oak Brook, Illinois. Following Salgado and others’ earlier example, 138 nonviolent protestors were arrested for trespassing and peacefully refusing to leave. (3) Vickie Elmer reported that the first person arrested was 20-year-old Milwaukee resident Natasha Carson. Asked by an officer if she knew why she was being arrested, Carson said, “I’m just standing up for my rights.” One day later, activists protested outside of McDonald’s shareholder meeting, where company CEO Don Thompson addressed criticism of worker pay by telling shareholders, “We continue to believe that we pay fair and competitive wages. We provide job opportunities and training for those entering the work force.”

Fair Wages?

Fast-food ad campaigns have long sold Americans a consumerist vision of individuality, control and freedom, a potent message for the many who experience increasing powerlessness. For years, Wendy’s told customers to “Do what tastes right.” Between 1975 and 1979, McDonald’s told customers, “We do it all for you.” In the 1990s, the company promised, “What you want is what you get.” Summing it up best, Burger King’s consistent slogan has been: “Have it your way.” An ad explaining the slogan reads, “You have the right to have what you want, exactly when you want it. Because on the menu of life, you are ‘Today’s Special.’ . . . We may be the King, but you my friend, are the almighty ruler.” Aristocratic manifestos such as these have, prior to the protests, sheltered customers from the moral responsibility to consider whether or not workers are receiving “fair” wages, as Thompson claims. (4)

Drawing on data provided in an industry study, Statista Inc. indicates that in 2010 the average annual income for the fast-food industry’s 3.9 million US employees was $12,278. (5) According to Bloomberg, the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey indicates that the median earnings for fast-food workers during 2009 and 2011 was $18,564, about $500 less than the median income for child caregivers.

How can workers make so little? shows that the average pay for McDonald’s cashiers and crew members is less than $8 an hour, and shift managers receive about $9.50. A McDonald’s “crew member” working for $8 an hour, 40 hours a week, 52 weeks a year will earn about $1,387 monthly. This means a “crew member” who works every weekday for every week of the year, without taking a single workday off for vacation, personal sickness, tending to a family member or any other reason, will make $16,640 a year. Even shift managers working the same hours at $9.50 an hour will earn less than $20,000.

Kansas City fast-food worker Terrance Wise told Democracy Now! he works between 50 and 60 hours a week working for $9.30 an hour at Burger King, where he has been for eight years, and $7.47 an hour at Pizza Hut. He said he joined the strike because he feels “now is the time for not only me, but all workers all across the nation, to stand up and speak out and come out of the shadows and let the public be aware of how we live our day-to-day lives, which is very poorly. And there needs to be change.” Stories like Wise’s pierce the industry code of silence that shelters consumers from the hardship and suffering involved in the making of their goods and providing of their services.

Present Gains and Potential Change

In addition to failing to meet demands for a living wage, activists allege that McDonald’s has engaged in wage theft and launched reprisals against workers’ First Amendment protected protests for higher wages. In two separate March 2014 cases, fast-food workers at Domino’s and McDonald’s were given $1 million in a settlement for purported stolen wages, including pay below the minimum wage and denied overtime. On July 29, 2014, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) Office of the General Counsel announced that of the 181 cases against McDonald’s alleging a violation of employees’ rights filed since November 2012, 68 had no merit, 64 are pending investigation, and 43 cases were deemed to have merit. (6)

Equally important, the NLRB’s general counsel determined that McDonald’s USA LLC is a joint employer with individual franchises and thereby potentially accountable for workers’ conditions. While critics complain that the ruling indicates union bias, many workers contend it merely reflects reality given that McDonald’s corporate office engages in oversight of factors of individual stores including regular onsite corporate assessments, secret shoppers, corporate computer system assessment of employees and sales, and corporate price-setting control on menu items. If McDonald’s status as joint-employer is upheld in forthcoming hearings, the company is likely to take the issue to the US Supreme Court to prevent the corporation from being deemed legally responsible for worker pay and treatment at individual stores.

Industry insiders and analysts repeatedly claim that fast-food protests are insignificant or “doomed” to fail. The National Retail Federation released a statement describing the August 2013 protests as a “publicity stunt” that further proves “that the labor movement is not only facing depleted membership rolls, they have abdicated their role in an honest and rational discussion about the American workforce.” If the movement were doomed to fail one would expect savvy business organizations to spend very little time participating in a media campaign to counter or discredit protesters’ activities and claims; however, we are seeing the opposite reaction. Additionally, Josh Eidelson reports that the National Restaurant Association reports, via internal communications, “closely monitoring social media for any plans or signs of activity.” In the documents, the group’s CEO, Dawn Sweeney, acknowledges that protests have “gained . . . traction in the last few months.” So while some may wish to see the movement fail, the future is unknown but glittering with possibility.

It’s a Kid Job! Another Myth, Another Example of Youthism

Both the public and the industry are unable to ignore obvious reality that workers’ wages are too little to live decently on as an independent American adult, let alone one with familial obligations. They are zombie wages: wages for the living dead. Unable to ignore this economic reality, many fall back on a web of plutocratic myths and fallacies that seek to derail honest, meaningful discussion about workers’ lives, undermine their complaints, and justify the public’s return to “blissful” consumerism.

Some members of the public have responded to fast-food protests with indignation fueled by industry talking points. Readers commenting on articles covering the 2013 strikes complained that fast-food jobs are meant for new, young workers earning spending money. “I worked those jobs through high school and college but continued to go to school, read, develop marketable knowledge and skills to propel me out of that realm of low wages,” writes one person. “The low wages were a motivator for me to rise up the ladder.” Another states, “these jobs were never intended to be life long career jobs. they are classic kid summer jobs. classic college kid jobs. classic ‘mom’ jobs while kids are in school between 10 and 2.” Commenting on the December 5, 2013, fast-food protests, Kay Lynn wrote, “The entire concept of the fast-food industry is that they hire teenagers who do not need to earn a living wage, because they are being supported by parent(s). They gain work experience, and in exchange, the restaurant pays them less for their unskilled labor and cost of training.” Summing up the view, a woman driving by a 2013 Labor Day solidarity rally for fast-food workers, in Jensen Beach, Florida, lowered the window to her Lexus and shouted out, “It’s a kid job!”

Former chief economist at the Department of Labor Diana Furchtgott-Roth also views the issue of fast-food workers’ demands for pay increases through the lens of the “teenage summer job” stereotype. A fellow at the libertarian think tank, The Manhattan Institute for Policy Research, Furchtgott-Roth conflates so-called “unskilled” workers with “teenagers,” contending that increasing wages would ultimately hurt “unskilled workers. The people who, like my teenager, want a summer job. No one’s going to pay my teenager $15 an hour. But my teenager can get $7.25 an hour.” A similar perspective is conveyed in a piece on the Young Conservatives website: “People who work at fast-food restaurants are either teenagers or people with minimum skills, so if they want to make more money, learn new skills. Pretty simple.”

Yet another negative category of youthful existence is added: near-worthless laborer.

The first error of the “it’s a kid’s job” retort is that just 30 percent of fast-food workers today are teenagers. In fact 40 percent are 25 and older, and 70 percent have a high-school degree or better. Moreover, the frequent use of the term “unskilled” to describe fast-food labor is erroneous. Certainly a variety of skills are necessary to possess or develop if one is to work with others to prepare food or take orders and run a cash register. Anyone who has worked these jobs understands that they require, among other things, the skill of tolerating often unpleasant working conditions. (7)

Also, the frequent assertion that because such jobs are believed to be worked by the young, employers do not need to more fully compensate them is indicative of adultcentrism: a prejudiced, adult-centered ideology that normalizes discrimination against the young (youthism). Arguably workers should be paid a sum proportionate to the profits they help a company generate – not one associated to a particular age. (8) After all, McDonald’s is not a nonprofit charitable organization purposed to help young people develop 21st century workplace skills. The “it’s a summer job so I don’t have to pay you much” argument might work if it were made by a person who was paying another even though their labor was literally worthless. (9)

As theorist Henry A. Giroux notes, young people are among the most marginalized in our society. “Young people have been increasingly denied a significant place in an already weakened social contract,” Giroux writes. He adds that “youth are mostly defined as a consumer market, a drain on the economy, or stand for trouble.” In the context above yet another negative category of youthful existence is added: near-worthless laborer. Thus the statement on the Young Conservatives website not only gets the facts wrong but also ironically normalizes the devaluation of youth labor.

The Real Fast-Food Workers of Any City, USA

Not only are many fast-food workers adults, a quarter are raising at least one child. In December 2013, single mother and Wendy’s employee Amber Stallings told the show Today, it’s a struggle to survive on $8.40 an hour and that she survives on government assistance. Terrance Wise, who has three daughters, told Democracy Now!’s Amy Goodman that he is so busy working, he has little time to see them. “When I get off tonight, they will probably be asleep again. So, it’s consecutive days where I don’t get to see my daughters. And that’s damaging to raising my family. That’s one element that’s really the hardest,” he said. Asked about the popular belief that most fast-food workers are young people without families Wise told Goodman, “Where I work, in both of my shops, I look around . . . there are people with families, trying to raise families.”

A 2013 study by researchers at the University of California, Berkeley, determined that more than half of low-wage workers at fast-food restaurants rely on public assistance at a cost of nearly $7 billion annually.

New York City fast-food worker Kareem Starks told reporters he has two sons, ages 6 and 12, and that recently he didn’t make enough money to treat his two boys when they successfully finished kindergarten and 5th grade. “My general manager told me he was going to give me some extra opportunities to make money – extra days. He calls me in on my day off, and three days after that, every day, a different manager sends me home. At the end of the week, I only get a paycheck with 28 hours. I didn’t have enough to do anything for my son [like] buy balloons or take him out to a pizza shop,” Starks said.

Another obscured fact is that women comprise more than 60 percent of fast-food and counter workers. (10) Speaking to her experience as a single mom working at McDonald’s, Lisette Ortiz told Forbes she went on strike because her $7.25 an hour pay prevents her from sufficiently providing for her 3-year-old daughter. “You can’t live off that. I work on my days off. McDonald’s has to meet us halfway,” Ortiz said. Thus one of the fast-food strikers’ slogans: “I can’t survive on $7.25.”

Record Profits, Poverty Wages and Public Subsidization

When Nancy Salgado called “McResource,” a helpline for McDonald’s employees, asking about assistance for heating, groceries and medical expenses, the helpline operator said she “definitely should be able to qualify for both food stamps and heating assistance.” The operator then directed Salgado to food pantries and other need-based programs in the Chicago area. (11) Salgado’s circumstances are not unique. A 2013 study by researchers at the University of California, Berkeley, determined that more than half of low-wage workers at fast-food restaurants rely on public assistance at a cost of nearly $7 billion annually. A companion report found that McDonald’s employees receive $1.2 billion a year in assistance to compensate for their insufficient wages. This means that taxpayers must subsidize companies’ low-wage pay to prevent hunger and suffering. Meanwhile many defenders of “market-based” wages also seek to slash government benefits for the poor, many of who rely upon such benefits to compensate for low wages.

Defenders of existing pay standards contend that the fast-food industry’s profitability cannot be sustained if pay goes up. The industry-backed, think tank, Employment Policies Institute, has responded to strikes with a full-page ad in USA Today contending that any change to the minimum wage will force the industry to “replace employees with less-costly, automated alternatives like touch-screen ordering and payment devices,” ultimately hurting workers. As reported by Slate, the National Restaurant Association’s executive vice president, Scott DeFife, stated through a press release, “Restaurants operate on very thin profit margins. Significant additional labor costs can negatively impact a restaurants’ ability to hire or maintain jobs.”

Kevin Short’s global comparison of McDonald’s wages shows that some workers in New Zealand make the equivalent of $12.35 US dollars an hour while unions in Denmark have secured a minimum wage for all McDonald’s workers that is presently $21 US dollars an hour.

Critics counter that such claims divert attention from the facts of fast-food economic growth and workers’ rightful claims to be appropriately rewarded for their contributions. According to McDonald’s 2011 Annual Report, “global comparable sales” have increased for 104 consecutive months through December 2011. Meanwhile, McDonald’s net income has grown from $3.5 billion in 2006 to $5.5 billion in 2011.(12) Between 2012 and 2013, Burger King’s net income rose from $88.1 million to $117.7 million. And the net income for Yum! Brands Inc., owner of KFC, Pizza Hut and Taco Bell, grew from $264 million to $458 million in one year.

Increasing Wages Without Breaking Customers’ Banks

Against the frequent claim that raising employee earnings will result in raising food costs, economist Catherine Ruetschlin contends that fast-food businesses have several options to pay for a raise for workers.

“They don’t necessarily have to pass the cost on to customers,” Ruetschlin told Democracy Now!. “They could do that, but they could also use some of the ways that they’re redirecting their profits right now. Firms like McDonald’s spend billions of dollars a year buying back their own shares of company stock on the market to consolidate ownership and bump up earnings per share and meet these short-term benchmarks.”

Instead, Ruetschlin says, companies could invest in their labor forces, which would “generate returns – higher productivity, loyal workers with better knowledge of the company processes . . . lower turnover rates – and it would actually receive benefits through that investment that would pay off in the long run.”

As proof of the alternatives, consider that workers at some McDonald’s restaurants outside of the United States make significantly more than their American counterparts, without the feared skyrocketing of prices. Kevin Short’s global comparison of McDonald’s wages shows that some workers in New Zealand make the equivalent of $12.35 US dollars an hour while unions in Denmark have secured a minimum wage for all McDonald’s workers that is presently $21 US dollars an hour. And what are the cost consequences for consumers for these pay increases? The Big Mac costs more in the United States than in New Zealand, and a mere 56 cents in Denmark for the near tripling of worker pay. (13)

Beyond Economic Considerations

In the debate about fast-food wages, economic considerations are important, but they should not trump fundamental moral questions: “Is it unjust for companies to expand their profits at this rate while paying workers so little?” “Are fast-food workers being exploited?” “Is this exploitation legitimate?” “What does justice require of companies in terms of pay?” “As a customer, what responsibility do I bear for worker treatment and pay?”

The persistent sidestepping and overshadowing of such questions indicates the continued devaluation of empathetic ethical considerations in the public sphere in favor of so-called “economic rationalism.” Philosopher Val Plumwood wrote that economic rationalism presents the free market “as a detached, disengaged, supremely rational mechanism, free from ‘irrational’ interferences, as the supreme social end and the measure of the worth (‘efficiency’) of other ends. But it can only appear in this neutral and dispassionate guise as ‘rational machinery’ because the historical social relations have selected its rules and established its cast of players in far from neutral ways [that] have been disappeared from view.” (14)

This was clear from Richard Berman’s appearance on Fox Business’ Varney & Co. in 2013. A member of the think tank Employment Policies Institute, Berman said: “At $15 an hour, many, I won’t say a majority, but many, fast-food restaurants are out of business; the business model just does not support those kind of wages. If people are feeling that they are not being paid adequately, then they have got to find a job someplace else.” What the program did not disclose, however, was that Berman has ties to industries including fast food (15) and earned $1.16 million in 2011 coordinating campaigns that aid such interests. The fast-food industry and its allies have a vested interest in changing, ignoring or simply denying the legitimate moral components of questions surrounding fast-food worker pay. Yet this is the very heart of the matter.

1. Laura Shin, “Fast Food Worker Protests Over Minimum Wage Spread Across The Globe,” Forbes, May 15, 2014.

2. Bruce Horovitz, Yamiche Alcindor, Chris Woodyard, Calum MacLeod, Kim Hjelmgaard, “Fast food workers rally for higher wages,” USA Today, May 15, 2014.

3. Kim Bellware and Jillian Berman, “McDonald’s Protesters Arrested Outside Corporate Headquarters,” The Huffington Post, May 21, 2014

4. American customers are more prone to registering complaints about subpar or rude service than inquire or complain about worker pay. McDonald’s reports that one in five customers complain that employees are “rude or unprofessional.” Consideration of the relationship between poor pay and powerlessness and poor customer service is mostly absent in discussions about improving customer satisfaction.

5. Reuters reports similar figures when it indicates that the Bureau of Labor Statistics indicate that “3.5 million fast-food and counter workers in the US earn a median hourly wage of $8.83, or almost $18,400 per year based on a 40-hour week without vacation” Lisa Baertlein, “Fast Food Workers Plan Protest at McDonald’s Shareholder Meeting,” Reuters in Huffington Post, May 21, 2014.

6.National Labor Relations Board, “NLRB Office of the General Consel Authorizes Complaints Against McDonald’s Franchisees and Determines McDonald’s, USA, LLC is a Joint Employer,” July 29, 2014.

7. I will never forget the putrid stench cooked into my skin and clothes each time I worked in the kitchen during my time at Wendy’s. I’ll also never forget how challenging it was to take orders and work the cash register during lunch-time rushes when I worked at Miami Subs. In the week that the store was opened while I began working there, I never mastered this skill. (I also never received my pay from the store I worked at when they closed down.)

8. I want to thank April Lee Nall for inspiring this addition through our August 23, 2013, conversation.

9. I’m thinking of those times when my father brought me on his landscaping jobs during the summer. He would pay me some marginal sum such as $20 – usually direct from his marginal pay – to incentivize working with him to develop work ethic. Today, I cherish these five-to-eight-hour South Florida work sessions as having aided my personal development. The point is I was usually doing work – like pulling weeds – that the customer was not really that concerned with.

10. The Bureau of Labor Statistics’ category “Fast Food and Counter Workers,” p. 5, is comprised of two subgroups: “Combined food preparation and serving workers, including fast-food” (of which women comprise 64.9 percent) and “counter attendants, cafeteria, food concession, and coffee shop” (of which women comprise 70.8 percent). The figure cited earlier is based on the average of these two figures.

11. Emily Jane Fox, “McDonald’s workers should have no problem qualifying for government programs like food stamps and heating assistance,” CNN Money, October 24, 2013

12. “2011 Annual Report,” McDonald’s Corporation, 7.

13. Kevin Short, “Working At McDonald’s Is Starkly Different In These 3 Countries,” The Huffington Post, May 15, 2014. Also of note: Some Philippines’ workers earn $1.32 US dollars an hour.

14. Val Plumwood, Environmental Culture: The Ecological Crisis of Reason (New York: Routledge, 2002), 22.

15. “EPI funded by industry. EPI is described by Nation’s Restaurant News as a “research organization funded by restaurants, retailers and manufacturers.” “Employment Policies Institute,” Berman Exposed Daniel Schorn, “Meet Rick Berman, A.K.A. ‘Dr. Evil,'” CBS News, February 11, 2009 . . . a partial list of Berman’s clients was leaked to the media some years back. Names included Cocoa Cola, Tyson Chicken, Outback Steakhouse and Wendy’s.”

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