Thursday in 60 cities across the country, fast food and retail workers staged a one-day strike demanding higher wages and the right to form a union without retaliation. The strikes affected nearly 1,000 fast food chains, including McDonalds, Burger King, and Wendy’s, and inspired members of the Congressional Progressive Caucus and Massachusetts Senator Edward Markey to join strikers.
A campaign that started as a 200-person strike in New York City last November is now highlighting the devastating effects of the recession on job growth. Though the unemployment rate continues to fall, the majority of new jobs—58%—are considered low-wage. Median wages for 70% of Americans have stayed completely flat for a decade now, even as productivity gains concentrate more and more wealth in the hands of wealthiest few.
The median wage for fast food workers is $8.78, just above the federal minimum wage of $7.25 and less than a living wage in many states. Even if workers work full time (40 hours a week), a minimum wage job adds up to just $15,000 dollars a year. But few get assigned that much work. As a McDonalds worker told the Associated Press,”Forty? Never. They refuse to let you get to that (many) hours.”
The food workers say the solution is a federal minimum wage of $15 an hour and the right to form a union without retaliation. Research tends to back this up. The decline of labor unions has correlated almost perfectly with the decline of the middle class. Other studies have shown that a minimum wage hike will benefit more than 80 million low-income Americans. Despite opposition from Republicans, there is no proven link between a higher minimum wage and higher levels of unemployment.
With Republicans in control of the House of Representatives, any minimum wage increase seems unlikely. But optimists note that the last minimum wage law was signed by President Bush—a Republican—before the recession wiped out the middle class. As Willieta Dukes, a 39-year-old Burger King worker in North Carolina said, “The more of us who join together, the more powerful we are.”