Finishing the March for Livable Wages

McDonalds Thank You sign(Photo: Mike Neilson )I wrote that fast food workers were expected to walk off their jobs in 35 cities this week. They’ve done way more than that. Fast food workers in 60 cities walked off the job, in the biggest strike ever to hit the $200 billion dollar fast food industry. The strike affected over 1,000 restaurants, and in some cities fast food workers were joined by retail workers from stores like Macy’s, Sears, Walgreen’s, and Victoria’s Secret.

Fifty years after Martin Luther King, Jr., shared his dream with America, low-wage workers are still fighting for part of that dream. Fast food workers are going on strike in 35 cities across the country, to demand a $15 minimum wage, the right to join a union without intimidation, and the right to protest violations of their rights in the workplace. Step by step, low-wage workers are finishing the march for livable wages that started with the 1963 March on Washington.

Their website, LowPayIsNotOK.Org makes it easy to get involved. For fast food workers, there’s a 15-step guide to organizing for a $15 minimum wage. For those of us on the other side of the counter or drive-thru window, there are “campaign cards” for customers to pass on to workers, informing them of the strike, and referring them to the website for more information on how they can join the movement.

The demand for a $15 minimum wage echoes a demand of the 1963 march. Fifty years ago, marchers came to Washington demanding a $2.00 minimum wage. In 1963, the federal minimum wage was $1.25. Had their demand been met in 1963, today minimum wage would be well over $13 an hour, and perhaps over $15 an hour if it kept up with inflation.

If all of the above had come to pass, not only would low-wage workers be better off today, but so would the economy, and so would the rest of us. Fifty years after the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, there is still unfinished business. We still need to lift low-wage workers out of poverty, in order to grow the economy, increase shared prosperity.

Who would benefit from increasing the minimum wage to $15 an hour? Not who you might think. Most of the workers who would benefit are not teenagers, earning a few extra dollars after school and on weekends. Most have families to support. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median age for fast-food workers is 28. For women, who account for two-thirds of the industry, the average age is 32. (For big-box retailers like Walmart, the median age is 30.) These workers typically bring in half their family’s income.

They could use a raise, and it’s not like the industry can’t afford it. According to a report by the National Employment Law Project, most low-wage workers are employed by companies where profits are actually higher than they were before the recession. The fast food industry in particular has increased revenues during the recession, by attracting cash-strapped consumers with “value menus” and low-prices specials.

In turn, fast food industry CEOs have been rewarded with massive compensation packages. McDonald’s CEO Don Thompson received a compensation package valued at $13.8 million last year. Yum! Brands —which licenses fast food favorites such as Taco Bell, KFC, and Pizza Hut — saw a 13 percent gain in annual earnings last year, and celebrated 11 straight years of double-digit growth. Yum! Brands CEO David Novak got a compensation package worth about $11.3 million. Even Walmart CEO Michael Duke, despite sluggish growth and a mere 5 percent increase in sales, got a “raise,” with a compensation package worth $20.7 million — up from $18.1 million in 2011.

Increase profits have meant led to increased growth for the fast-food industry. It’s no secret that most of the jobs created during this “recovery” are low wage jobs. Food preparation jobs have grown faster than other sectors in the last two years. Booming business and rising revenues means more money and more growth for fast food industry giants. Thus, they’ve added new jobs twice as fast as the average for US companies.

Fast food workers, on the other hand, haven’t fared nearly as well. The pay ratio is between fast food industry CEOs and fast food workers is among the worst. Yum! Brands ranks among the corporations with the highest rate of income inequality between the executive and the average worker, due to many part-time employees. According to a December 2012 Bloomberg News article, a McDonald’s employee would have to work nearly one million hours (or basically work about 25 years on the clock) to make what McDonald’s paid its CEO at the time.

Fast food workers earn less in a year than fast food CEOs do in a day. Yet, workers aren’t asking for much more than to earn in a year what fast food CEOs can earn in a day. The average daily salary of fast food CEO is about $25,000. A November 2012 Demos report, “Retail’s Hidden Potential: How Raising Wages Would Benefit Workers, the Industry and the Overall Economy,” shows how even raising workers’ annual pay to $25,000 (about $12.25 per hour) would benefit workers, companies, and the economy.

  • 734,075 people currently in poverty would be lifted above the federal poverty line
  • another 769.191 living in “near poverty” would see their incomes rise above 150 percent of the poverty line
  • GDP would increase between $11.8 and $15.2 billion
  • resulting economic growth would create 100,000 to 132,000 additional jobs
  • assuming workers are more likely to spend than save their wage increase, retail sales could increase $4 to $5 billion in the next year
  • The cost to large corporations would amount to $20.8 billion, or just 1 percent of their $2.17 trillion in total annual sales.
  • if retailers pass half or even one-fourth of the cost on to consumers, customers would pay just 7 to 15 cents more per shopping trip

These statistics bear out a simple truth I heard at the National Town Hall on Poverty and Empowerment, hosted by the Southern Christian Leadership Council and Rainbow PUSH on the eve of Saturday’s March.

Rev. Otis Moss said something during the panel discussion that immediately came to mind when I read these statistics . I can’t embed the CSPAN video, but I’ve created a clip of Rev. Moss’ remarks on the relationship between prosperity and economic justice. Here’s the passage that impressed me enough that I scribbled it down almost word-for-word.

…We have to teach our nation, our Congress, our government, and ourselves that prosperity and justice are not enemies. We have this practice that in order for some to be prosperous, others must necessarily remain poor.

It made me think of Walmart, which isn’t quite as prosperous as it used to be. Sales are down and goods are not flying off the shelves, no matter how low the prices. That’s due, in large part the fact that Walmart’s customer base is in the same boat as its employees base. They now earn so little that they can’t even afford shop at Walmart. It’s not that prices aren’t low enough. It’s that wages aren’t high enough.

It also made me think of the fast food workers, who are essential to the fortunes of companies that employ them. After all, most of their jobs can’t be outsourced, automated, or computerized. Those jobs must be filed by human beings, who need food, shelter, medical care, and other basic necessities. The people who do these jobs should earn enough to afford food, shelter, transportation, medical care and other necessities. The companies that employ them can more than more than afford to do so, and stand to gain by doing so.

Livable wages will benefit workers, employers, and the economy, but they’re not just good economic sense. Livable wages are simply economic justice. Rev. Moss said prosperity and justice are not enemies. Indeed, they are not. Each is essential. Without one, we can’t have the other.

That’s why people marched in 1963, and that’s why workers are standing up today; for justice and prosperity, for all.