Fast-food workers are holding strikes in 160 cities today, calling for a $15 minimum wage and the right to unionize. For the first time, these workers are joined by airport baggage handlers, skycaps, wheelchair attendants and aircraft cleaners.
In a series of protests starting in November 2012, the “fight for 15” has spread across the country—from New York City to Los Angeles, Memphis to Detroit. Today’s strikes continue this momentum, occurring a week after Black Friday strikes held by Walmart workers.
Fast-food employees—who often work irregular hours for low wages—have spearheaded the movement, which initially targeted McDonald’s, Burger King and Wendy’s. According to a 2013 study from the University of Illinois and the UC Berkeley Labor Center, 52 percent of fast-food workers’ families receive financial assistance from public programs such as Medicaid and food stamps. This negates the false notion that these workers are young, part-time employees working merely for pocket cash—an idea fast-food companies try to perpetuate.
When questioned by employees about monetary struggles, McDonald’s told employees to sing away their stress, go to church and apply for public assistance. A 2013 monthly budget guide from the company didn’t account for food and gasoline as monthly expenses, and also provided a space for a second job, which CNN Money calls an “admission by the fast food giant that its workers can’t live on its wages alone.” The New Yorker refers to these approaches by employers as “painfully out of touch,” stating that “fast-food giants have seemed clumsy and wrong-footed by the surge of protest.”
Another loosely grounded argument against raising wages is that it will force fast-food companies to raise prices, thus losing their competitive edge. But, according to the New Yorker,
In Denmark, McDonald’s workers over the age of 18 earn more than $20 an hour—they are also unionized—and the price of a Big Mac is only 35 cents more than it is in the United States.
Fortunately, many political leaders support the increase. In a speech on Labor Day, President Obama—who has touted a federal minimum wage of $10.10—stated:
All across the country right now, there’s a national movement going on made up of fast-food workers organizing to lift wages, so they can provide for their families with pride and dignity.
It’s unlikely that the president’s support can sway the conservative Congress to pass legislation, so many states and cities have taken it upon themselves to increase the minimum wage. Since the minimum wage strikes began in 2012, 13 states and 10 county and city governments have increased their minimum wages, which particularly helps women workers, who compose nearly two-thirds of the minimum-wage workforce.
Slate calls the minimum-wage movement “the most interesting—and most successful—American labor push in recent memory.” But minimum wage is only one part of the struggle: Strikers are also calling for unionization rights, responding to a national trend of declining union membership.
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