Fast-Food Protests on Thursday: It’s About More Than Money

The walkouts started a year ago. Fast-food workers, long frustrated with low wages, organized protests that began in New York City and spread to a nationwide  grassroots movement, culminating in a one-day strike in 60 cities this past August. We at Ms. were so impressed and supportive that we featured a cover story on these workers  for the Fall 2013 issue.

Now fast-food workers are taking the next step in their campaign for higher wages: They’ve planned strikes and protests for this Thursday, December 5, in 200 cities across the country.

They will be demanding a $15-an-hour wage, a much-needed improvement on their national median wage of $8.94 an hour. As Ms. documents in our Fall issue, fast-food workers, who are predominantly women, struggle to provide basic needs for their families. Non-managerial workers (especially women and people of color) rarely are advanced to managerial positions, and because of their low wages, more than half of fast-food workers qualify for public assistance. That means taxpayers subsidize fast-food workers’ low pay to the tune of nearly $7 billion a year. Meanwhile, the CEOs at fast-food companies are raking in huge salaries as shown by the Ms. graphic below.

But with discussions about fast-food workers revolving around wage equity, we must remember that workplace deprivation is about far more than low wages.

Says Martha Nussbaum, professor of law and philosophy at University of Chicago,

Income does help you achieve the things you want to achieve in society, but it doesn’t really go far enough in that women face often enduring discrimination. … We want to aim for an end to sexual harassment in the workplace, and we might even think about environmental standards in the workplace. … Are [workers] forced to stand long hours in a way that jeopardizes health? Are they deprived of good social relations? Are they treated badly? We have to ask all those questions too.

Nussbaum studies poverty from the perspective of capabilities, where poverty is measured by what people can do or be with the resources they have. Income is only one factor in determining if people are poor; some face other enduring disadvantages that hamper their chances of rising out of poverty.

You could think, for example, about how sexual harassment creates an enduring obstacle to women to enjoy full opportunity in the workplace because it creates fear [and] it creates substandard performance.

Fast food is part of the worst industry in terms of sexual harassment: the restaurant business. Nearly 40 percent of sexual harassment claims by working women to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission come from restaurant employees with 10 percent of women restaurant workers saying they’ve been harassed. This happens even though women in the industry  make up less than 10 percent of the total U.S. women’s workforce.

Other detriments women restaurant workers face are lack of control over their work schedules, which can be problematic for those who need childcare on nights or weekends, and lack of health insurance and paid sick leave. Less than 30 percent of all low-wage and part-time workers receive paid sick leave, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, and most fast-food workers fall into either or both categories.

The consequences of these barriers are significant, as Michelle Chen, author of the Ms. cover story on fast food workers, explains:

Research reveals that the day-to-day hardships and indignities of restaurant work are compounded by long-term structural barriers of gender and racial segregation, which keep many women in marginal, irregular jobs with little hope of moving up from, say, server to manager.

You can find out if your city’s fast-food workers are participating in this week’s strikes and protests here and here. If you can, join them! The Ms. Blog also invites you to be a citizen journalist: Tweet us your pictures and first-hand reports from Thursday’s protests with @msmagazine, using the hashtag #StandWithRosie.

Photo from Annette Bernhardt under license from Creative Commons 2.0.