As New York Times labor writer Steve Greenhouse has noted, until 1975, “wages nearly always accounted for more than 50 percent of our nation’s GDP.” But in 2012 they fell to a record low of 43.5 percent. Those who make the economic engine run are receiving less of what they produce. And it’s not because employees aren’t working harder, or smarter. From 1973 to 2011, according to the Economic Policy Institute, employee productivity grew by 80.4 percent while median hourly compensation after inflation grew by just 10.7 percent.
Thursday’s one-day strike of fast-food workers in dozens of cities was one of the new forms of labor creativity aimed at doing something about this. The folks who serve your burgers are demanding that instead of an average fast-food wage of $8.94 an hour, they ought to be paid $15. Assuming two weeks of unpaid vacation, this works out to $30,000 a year, hardly a Ronald McDonald’s ransom.
The protests have the benefit of putting low-wage workers in the media spotlight, a place they’re almost never found in a world more interested in the antics of Miley Cyrus and Donald Trump. “They want a raise with those fries,” the New York Daily News cheekily led its story on the strike.
Key unions are helping to organize these efforts, but they don’t necessarily expect formal union recognition. They want to raise wages, which is what could happen if the public responds. Companies have been frantically painting themselves green to attract environmentally conscious customers. Employers might discover, to paraphrase the old McDonald’s slogan, that their workers deserve a break today if consumers (who are also workers themselves) started pressuring them to be more employee-friendly.
The fast-food campaign feeds into efforts to hike the current $7.25-an-hour minimum wage nationwide and to enact higher “living wages” in localities around the country. In Long Beach, Calif., as my Post colleague Harold Meyerson reported recently in the American Prospect, voters last November overwhelmingly enacted a measure to boost the hourly pay of some 2,000 of the city’s hotel employees to $13.
From The Grio:
Poverty-wage workers, including union workers, are more likely to be women, young and of color in the new service economy. According to EPI, one-quarter of Americans work in low-paying jobs, which is at or below the federal poverty level for a family of four, which was $23,005 per year in 2011. White women are less than half the workforce, but 55.1 percent of poverty-wage workers. Workers between ages 18 and 25 were 15.5% of the workforce in 2011, but were 35.5 percent of poverty-wage workers.
Blacks and Latinos are overrepresented among low wage workers. African-Americans were 11 percent of the workforce in 2011, yet made up 14.1 percent of all poverty-wage workers. Similarly, Hispanics constituted 15.3 percent of the workforce in 2011, but 23.6 percent of poverty-wage workers. Whites are underrepresented among the poverty-wage workforce, accounting for 66.9 percent of all workers, but only 55.9 percent of all poverty-wage workers.
Meanwhile, in 2011, only 31.5 percent of poverty-wage workers lived in households with greater than $50,000 in family income, while 31% lived in households with less than $25,000 in family income. These figures counter the notion that many fast-food workers live in high income households, such as a teenager with well-to-do parents, or an adult with a higher-earning spouse.
In addition, there are educational disparities among low wage workers. For example, workers with a high school diploma or less were 36.4 percent of the total workforce in 2011 but 54.3 percent percent of low-wage workers. Yet, workers with some college education are overrepresented as well, accounting for 19.7 percent of the national workforce but 26.4 percent of poverty-wage workers.
The workers in the $200 billion a year fast food industry are dependent on food stamps at twice the rate of the rest of the U.S. workforce, and rely on other government programs such as Medicaid just to make ends meet. This comes as Don Thompson, the CEO of McDonald’s, saw his compensation more than triple to $13.75 million.