Before November 2012, fast-food workers in America had never gone on strike. There was a good reason for that. Many burger-flippers were teenagers in need of a few extra bucks, and thanks to high turnover in the industry, most workers didn’t have to stay long in those poverty-wage jobs.
After the economic meltdown of 2007-2008 and the Great Recession, things changed. A disproportionate share of job gains during the “recovery” turned up in the low-wage service sector of the workforce. The result: a growing contingent of adult fast-food workers who can’t find other work. And fast-food wages, which average $8.69 an hour, have dropped by 36 cents an hour since 2010. More than half of the families of fast-food workers are forced to rely on public programs like food stamps and Medicaid to get by.
In November 2012, fed-up workers at franchises like McDonald’s, Wendy’s, and KFC went on strike for the first time, demanding a $15 minimum wage and the right to join unions without retaliation. In the months that followed, these worker protests spread across the country faster than organizers expected. As Naquasia LeGrand, a KFC employee, told me late last year, she joined the first strike in New York City because workers hadn’t seen a dime of the record profits fast food chains are reaping. “We don’t get enough respect” was the way she put it.
Low-wage workers face terrible odds. The other NRA, the National Restaurant Association, which lobbies on behalf of the $600 billion industry, has been fighting minimum wage hikes for decades. In recent years, the group, whose members include KFC, Taco Bell, and Pizza Hut, has more than doubled its lobbying heft on Capitol Hill. Between 2008 and 2013, NRA lobbyists pushing the industry’s interests in Washington shot up from 15 to 37. And don’t forget the 127 lobbyists who represented nine of the association’s biggest members in 2013, up from 56 in 1998. The NRA alone has spent $2.2 million on lobbying since November 2012, and handed out more than $400,000 in campaign contributions as well.
President Obama can call on Congress to increase the minimum wage till hell freezes over, but don’t expect even the modest hike he backs to happen any time soon given the opposition of congressional Republicans, who just happen to have gotten the lion’s share of the NRA’s campaign contributions over the years. In the meantime, folks will keep working three jobs to not get by.
State Department whistleblower and TomDispatch regular Peter Van Buren took an unlikely fall into the minimum-wage world when he lost his job in 2012. Today, he gives us a first-hand look at what it’s like to subsist in poverty-wage America (as he does in his vivid new novel about the hollowing out of the American workforce, Ghosts of Tom Joad: A Story of the #99Percent).
- An Apartheid of Dollars
Life in the New American Minimum-Wage Economy
Peter Van Buren • April 24, 2014 • 3,400 Words