Fast food workers in New York City are back on the job after a strike that attracted national attention and “scared the heck out of the bosses,” as labor journalist Sarah Jaffe put it in an interview with Ed Schultz. The strike is one among a recent string of labor actions conducted by low-wage workers in the U.S. to fight for fair pay as well as better working conditions. Walmart workers notably took action on Black Friday, historically one of the biggest retail days of the year, while the Retail Action Project has been organizing on behalf of workers affected by wage theft, on-call shift scheduling and other labor abuses. Meanwhile, the union UNITE HERE has been working with hotel workers at chains like Hyatt to address poor working conditions.
One in four workers in the United States is employed in a low-wage job. That includes many people in the food service industry, retail employees, janitors, hotel workers, agricultural laborers, and many others who make the U.S. economy tick; notably, many of these workers are also women and people of color, and the workers’ educational level tends to be lower than that of the general population. While this underclass labors, large companies like their employers profit, often immensely so. Growth is up for firms like Walmart, despite economic problems, indicating that their business strategy is effective.
A key part of that strategy involves underpaying their workers. With a federal minimum wage set at $7.25, far too low for the cost of living in many areas, low-wage workers are often forced to work multiple jobs while still struggling to pay the bills. In addition, they are rarely entitled to benefits like health care, retirement accounts, paid sick days, and paid time off. U.S. workers are working harder and longer than ever before, but that’s not balanced by greater productivity, just more profits for their employers.
Writing for The Atlantic, Jaffe notes that these signs of rebellion are occurring at a time when labor unions are in decline, with fewer workers protected by union membership than ever before. As workers grow frustrated with poor conditions and low wages, walkouts and similar acts of protest become an effective communication method that doesn’t just help them organize. It also helps them attract the attention of society in general, pushing people to support their cause. The series of walkouts and other labor actions across the nation in 2012 may be laying the blueprint for more aggressive labor organizing, including a push for a higher federal minimum wage.
Fighting for the rights of low-wage workers is critical, and it’s something that the nation as a whole should be supporting. Better wages equal greater opportunities for economic involvement, which could be a key component of economic recovery; more spending power for workers currently fighting to make ends meet means more demand for a range of goods. Higher wages also means fewer people depending on social services for survival, and a regrowth of the U.S. middle class.
The only thing standing in the way may be the companies who stand to lose if the minimum wage increases, and citizens must take action to counter their lobbying abilities in Congress.