The radical notion that people who work should be able to live off their earnings. Even if they work in fast food.

03 Sep 2013 11:16 am
Posted by: Donna

I grew up thinking Labor Day signified the end of summer and the beginning of the school year. It wasn’t until many years later that I realized it was actually about the labor movement and not cookouts. Labor Day 2013 happens to be the 100th anniversary of the Department of Labor recognizing the holiday to celebrate the contribution of workers to America and their struggle for rights and dignity. As the battles for a 40 hour workweek, vacations, safety standards, ending child labor, etc., raged, you can bet (because this has been the case with every democratic movement in human history) that there were always those (including people sympathetic to the cause) who cautioned those union people that they were asking for too much.

Which brings me to last Thursday, when low wage workers and their advocates took to the streets in several US cities to demand not just a raise in the current federal minimum wage ($7.25 an hour) of a couple of dollars but a raise to $15 an hour. That wage would enable many, many more workers currently making minimum wage or not much more than that to support themselves without relying on public assistance. It would instantly lift millions of people out of poverty.

As you might expect, the conservative reaction to the “Fast Food Strike” was less than charitable. A commenter to The Blaze, calling himself AvengerK, brought some really special narcissism and racism to his commentary:

Someone should explain it to them like this.

Come here Consuelo…you see that 2013 Lexus in the car yard? Why do you think it’s more expensive than your 1999 Kia?

Well Senor AVENGER….it’s because it’s a prestige car, it does a lot of things my Kia can’t do. It’s better made and a lot more time and money was put into making it than my Kia.

So Consuelo…let’s take the same idea to the workplace. Why do you think the CEO of McDonald’s -that you work for- earns so much more than you?

Well Senor AVENGER..he’s owns the company, he makes the decisions that affect the company, he pays for licenses, taxes, franchising, modernization and employs a very experienced group of board members and executives who all make this company one of the most successul in the world.

And you fry french fries and flip burgers right Consuelo?

Si Senor AVENGER.

So does the term “unskilled labor” mean anything to you Consuelo?

Si Senor AVENGER it means all I do is fry fries and flip burgers for a few hours a day because that’s all I can bring to the labor market.

And you believe you’re worth more money for the lack of skills you bring to the market Consuelo?

No habla Inglais Senor AVENGER.

That’s another reason you’re not worth $15 an hour Consuelo..you “no habla Inglais”. Comprende?

Charming. Conservatives mocking the labor movement is nothing new but sometimes well-intentioned liberals can be a wet blanket as well. I’ve seen more than one non-conservative spout standard Chamber of Commerce talking points that a living wage will cause price hikes and/or businesses to fire employees. To the first point, there is no evidence that raising the minimum wage leads to inflation. To the second, do you really think companies like McDonald’s philanthropically employ more workers than they need at low wages so those workers will have jobs? If McDonald’s chose to raise its prices through the roof and fire half its employees in response to a minimum wage increase I suppose they would go out of business pretty soon but I don’t think they’d do that. McDonald’s is already paying employees in other countries more than they do here and is doing just fine in them.

The idea that the striking fast food workers don’t deserve a living wage because “it’s unskilled work” is a shockingly callous stance for a liberal or moderate to take, if you think about it, but some do. (Right wingers are clearly a lost cause on this. They seem gleefully committed to the idea that lowly serfs should be worked on starvation wages until they die.) It also makes no sense from a fiscal or practical standpoint. Underpaid workers are likely to be reliant on social safety net programs such as food stamps and Medicaid, not to mention having less spending money to circulate through the marketplace and keep our economy (which is 70% consumer spending) afloat. To oppose a living wage on the basis of “skills” is to be weirdly protective of McDonald’s executives and shareholder profits at the expense of the working poor, taxpayers, and the American economy. Moreover, if “unskilled” people get their wages raised guess who else gets a bump up in pay? People who do have more valued skills and training! High-skill employers will have to pay more to retain their workers. And the fast food workers, who would no longer be constantly on the brink of ruin if not beyond it, would be more able to seek training for more challenging1 jobs.

Fast food and other low wage service workers are looked down on by middle class and affluent people partly because the latter often enter the labor force in “McJobs”, with the understanding that they’ll move up to bigger and better things and the assumption that everyone should, and can, do that. What kind of loser makes a career of fast food? Plus, while Americans of all income levels patronize fast food places regularly, we tend to regard the quality of the product as mediocre-to-inferior and going to eat at them as slumming. I know lots of people who are very proud that they rarely or never eat fast food. So it’s no surprise this disdainful view of the fast food experience seeps over to the people working in it. I mean, God, is there a commoner trope in movies and TV than mockery of fast food workers in their silly uniforms?

Boy, was that contempt ever evident to me when I worked fast food as a 16 year old, serving Wendy’s double bacon cheeseburgers to snotty customers for the princely sum of $3.35 per hour (thanks, Reagan). But what is merely grating when you’re a bored suburban teenager working for extra cash2 is a much nastier and more tangible force in your life when you’re an adult for whom fast food the only job available to you and you’re supposed to support yourself and possibly others in your household3 on fast food wages.

The arguments against asking for $15 an hour I find to be the most frustrating are the misplaced-concern ones, i.e, “It’s better to ask for $1 or $2 more an hour because they’re more likely to get it!” My response to that is why not ask for more? Assuming $15 is out of the question, why are poor workers out of line for taking a bold position when such a thing is considered confident negotiating when more powerful people do it? Start out asking for a pittance and you’ll end up with less than a pittance, if you’re lucky. Geez, that’s Bargaining 101! Then there’s the worry that “No one will take them seriously!” Oh no! You mean all the people who have so much respect for fast food workers will suddenly lose it? Please.

In any event, calling for a $15 an hour as a minimum wage isn’t nearly as radical a notion as demolishing the minimum wage entirely, an idea that many prominent conservatives openly and enthusiastically support.

The point of it, Koch said, is that he believes prosperity grows where economic freedom is greatest, where government intervention in business affairs is kept to a minimum. He hopes his ideas will help the country grow, he said. In his interview he emphasized several times that he believes his ideas on economics will help disadvantaged people. Government regulations – including the minimum wage law – tend to hold everyone back, he said.

“We want to do a better job of raising up the disadvantaged and the poorest in this country, rather than saying ‘Oh, we’re just fine now.’ We’re not saying that at all. What we’re saying is, we need to analyze all these additional policies, these subsidies, this cronyism, this avalanche of regulations, all these things that are creating a culture of dependency. And like permitting, to start a business, in many cities, to drive a taxicab, to become a hairdresser. Anything that people with limited capital can do to raise themselves up, they keep throwing obstacles in their way. And so we’ve got to clear those out. Or the minimum wage. Or anything that reduces the mobility of labor.”

What was that you were saying about those fast food workers asking for too much?

1 From personal experience I can say that it’s some damn grueling work.

2 My family was actually in a pretty bad spot at the time because my dad was ailing and my paltry wages were going toward household expenses. But I fit the stereotype of “white suburban teen flipping burgers” otherwise.

3 For the record, I don’t think wages should be based on family status. I do dispute that wages in certain jobs should be kept low on the false premise that most of the workers doing them live with their parents and have no responsibilities.

4 Comments

  1. Comment by Mike Slater on September 4, 2013 4:27 pm

    Minimum wage was never meant to be a living wage and certainly no a living wage for a person with a family.

  2. Comment by Alan Scott on September 4, 2013 7:22 pm

    Fast food jobs are not looked down upon by the middle class. Many in the middle class got their start in such jobs. Those jobs were never meant to be living wage jobs.

    The wrong set of questions is being asked here. The right set of questions are why are so many Americans stuck in entry level jobs? Why aren’t companies expanding and hiring highly paid workers? Hint, his initials are B.O.

  3. Comment by Timmys Cat on September 7, 2013 10:53 am

    Yaaaawwnn, wait what? I’m a post behind? Slow down young-un, don’t you know that ideas like most people get riper….uh better with age?

    Geez, that’s Bargaining 101!

    Dingdingdingdingding!

    What seems to get lost in all the huffing and puffing about workers standing up for themselves is the simple fact is that is all they are doing.
    Businesses have well paid organizations and mouthpieces such as C of Cs, NFSIB, ALEC, and from all appearances the Republican Party, all working to protect their interests. Yet when workers do the same with unions and trade organizations they are attacked as anti-business or worse. Why would a union be anti-business when it’s members rely upon businesses to thrive to pay those members? What the right doesn’t want to do is recognize that unions can be for a business but against some of it’s business practices.
    To try for better terms and a larger share of a market is Business 101, so why don’t workers have that right as well?
    I realize the unions are not lilly white as well as most businesses either. It’s the nature of the beast. But what seems to get lost in the cacophany is the simple question as to why are workers seemingly suddenly becoming more vocal about their rights? I believe it has to do with businesses asking more and more cuts from their workers, with no relief being offered now that the economy is turning around.
    I think that workers are realizing they are on their own as far as businesses being cuthroat with their compensation and benefits. It simply makes sense to band together to give yourselves more bargaining power to protect yourselves with a better business deal.

    Unions are there for a reason. In a fair and just business world they would not be needed. Lost among the howling is that business practices have produced their need.

  4. Comment by Alan Scott on September 8, 2013 5:48 pm

    Industries that are unionized have been going backwards in employment numbers for decades.

    ” Unions are there for a reason. ” You mean in government ?

    Government has no competition so those union workers are doing better than their bosses. Their bosses are the taxpayer .

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