Fast-food workers backed by the Service Employees International Union are demanding an increase in wages from the federal minimum of $7.25 an hour to $15 an hour and the right to form a union without facing hostility and intimidation from management.
In recent weeks low-wage workers employed by McDonald’s, Subway, Macy’s, Wendy’s, Forever 21, Potbelly, Sally’s Beauty Supply, Bed Bath & Beyond, Chik-fil-A, Nordstrom Rack, Caffé Baci, Nike, Protein Bar, Mrs. Fields, Sears, Jason’s Deli and Victoria’s Secret, among others, have walked out in cities across the U.S. demanding a living wage and recognition of their right to organize.
While there is a lot of sympathy for the demands of low-wage workers, there is also a lot of confusion about the economic impact of raising the minimum wage. Won't raising the minimum wage lead to higher prices or fewer people getting jobs?
A column by economist Allison Schrager (”The Problem in the U.S is Economic Mobility, Not the Minimum Wage”) reflects these ideas. While appearing to be generally sympathetic to the plight of low-wage workers, she suggests that these workers are shooting themselves in the foot because, she claims, an increase in wages, especially one the size workers are demanding, would lead bosses to reduce their workforce. Of course, raising wages while cutting the massive salaries of bosses and corporate officials is never mentioned. After all, the fast-food industry brings in $200 billion per year. The money is there. The only reason that fast-food workers are not paid a living wage is that under capitalism, increasing corporate profits is more important.
However, instead of raising pay, Schrager advances the idea of allowing greater upward mobility within fast-food jobs. Is that the solution?
Upward mobility in fast food industry?
A report by the Nation Employment Law Project reveals that a mere 2.2 percent of employees in the fast-food industry are engaged in managerial, professional, or technical occupations, 8.7 percent are in supervisor positions, and a mere 1 percent are franchise holders. This leaves close to 90 percent of workers making wages that do not cover living expenses. Despite Schrager’s plea for greater class mobility, there simply is no room for most workers in the fast-food industry to climb to the top.
Following the recession beginning in 2008, a majority of the new jobs created have been low-wage fast-food and retail positions. These jobs fail to provide workers with 40 hours per week and a wage that can make ends meet. In an embarrassing blunder in a sample budget, even McDonald's showed its employees need a second job to get by.
Schrager states, “Fast-food workers tend to be young and have high job turnover, which suggests people might leave fast food jobs, for a variety of reasons, before they’d be promoted.” The reality, however, is that adults with families to support are a significant part of the fast-food workforce. The 2010 U.S. Census Bureau’s Current Population Survey suggests that only 17 percent of food service workers are between the ages of 16 and 19.
Felix Mendez, a Subway worker in Chicago, told eNews Park Forest “I’m striking because I can’t afford to provide my family with the basics. I serve food all day long but I have to work two jobs so my children don’t go hungry.”
Increasing the minimum wage and winning union representation are contentious topics in contemporary U.S. politics. Disagreement over these issues reflects the contradictions and class divisions within the capitalist system. Workers produce the wealth of society and the capitalists produce nothing, while parasitically extracting surplus value from the labor of workers. Increasing the minimum wage would reduce the rate of exploitation. But cut-throat competition for market share and the resulting unquenchable thirst for profit push employers to bust unions, push down wages and deny benefits that workers need.
The reforms demanded by the striking workers are important; however, only a revolutionary reorganization of society along socialist lines can ultimately provide workers with what we need to survive. Reform alone cannot liberate us, but struggling for reforms can educate and empower the working class. The successful mobilization of workers demonstrates that the true power of society rests in its labor force and not in the pocketbooks of the capitalists.