Are fast-food workers the new coal miners?

DAVID MAIALETTI / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER Shadeya Ivy, who earns $7.50 an hour working at McDonald's, is thankful she doesn't have a family to feed or an apartment of her own.
DAVID MAIALETTI / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER Shadeya Ivy, who earns $7.50 an hour working at McDonald's, is thankful she doesn't have a family to feed or an apartment of her own.
Posted: June 13, 2013

Today on PhillyDailyNews.com: View a Storify compilation with videos from protests around the country of fast-food workers demanding better wages.

SHADEYA IVY, working at McDonald's while pursuing a degree at Community College of Philadelphia, considers herself lucky - and not just because she recently got a 25-cent pay raise, to 25 cents above the minimum wage.

Mostly it's because Ivy, 22 - single, childless and living with a family friend not far from the fast-food outlet in Frankford - isn't in the position of some co-workers trying to raise a family or pull off a long daily commute on a paycheck that, even with a hard-to-attain 40-hour workweek, will place them well short of the federal poverty line for a family of four.

"If I was in my own apartment, it would be a different story," said Ivy, who typically works 30 to 40 hours a week at McDonald's in addition to her computer classes. "That would be difficult. I get $7.50 an hour. It's enough for gas - but what if you have to make sure you have food?"

Over the past two decades, with the Industrial Revolution and its union wages all but a memory, fast-food jobs have skyrocketed - now employing roughly 3.5 million Americans and as many as 15,000 Philadelphians.

In a new service-based economy, flipping burgers and manning the drive-through is no longer just a part-time starter job for eager high-school students, but now a long-term solution for people on the wide bottom of the economic pyramid - folks lacking a diploma, single moms or those escaping long-term unemployment.

The ones who stay behind the counter have found not only that it's hard to claw much above the $7.25 minimum wage, but that they have little or no leverage with the big chains or their franchisees - and no one speaking on their behalf.

Until now. Starting last November, thousands of fast-food workers in a half-dozen U.S. cities from New York to Seattle have staged noisy one-day strikes, even forcing some outlets to shut their doors as employees chant for a sizable raise to $15 an hour and demand the right to unionize. Some males carried placards proclaiming "I Am a Man" - a shout-out to the now-iconic 1968 Memphis sanitation strike at which Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated.

'Something's going on'

Organizers say the civil-rights connection is not a stretch. They insist that a living wage and better working conditions for low-paid workers in chain restaurants and large retail stores like Wal-Mart - where several thousand workers staged their own one-day walkout last year - is the labor battle of the 21st century, much like the fight for safety and better pay in coal mines and steel mills a century ago.

"There clearly is something going on, because the workers are taking such a big risk by striking," said Dorian Warren, an assistant professor of international and public affairs at Columbia University, who studies income inequality and has monitored the movement. "Clearly they feel that they don't have much to lose."

Warren said the stirrings among fast-food and Wal-Mart workers stem from 2011's Occupy Wall Street movement against the wealth disparity in America. "We got a preview with Occupy," Warren said, "this sense that the economy is not working for the people and they really have no future just by doing the right thing and going to work every day."

After roughly 200 workers took part in the initial job action last year in New York, a wave of strikes this spring included a second one-day walkout in New York and similar protests in Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Louis, Detroit and Seattle - although interviews indicate that no strike is on the horizon in Philadelphia.

A murky area

The strikers have been a minority of the workforce so far, but organizers have enthusiastically reported that no one has lost a job and that some strikers have received small raises, more hours or an improved schedule.

The job actions straddle a murky area of American labor law, experts say: Employees technically can't be fired just for striking, yet they can be replaced for not showing up for work, which is why the strikes have been just for one day.

Jonathan Westin, organizing director for New York Communities for Change, said the idea for the fast-food strikes emerged last year after community organizers found that many of the housing problems in Big Apple neighborhoods involved workers who had jobs but didn't earn enough to pay rent.

"We found people who were living in homeless shelters or living in cars, trying to work as many hours as they could," Westin said. Although the fast-food workers raised a number of issues about their working conditions, organizers decided to focus on two simple issues: the right to organize, and a pay hike.

The demand: $15 an hour, or more than double the current minimum wage. The move comes as President Obama is struggling to gain political support for a much more modest plan, floated in his State of the Union address, to raise the hourly minimum wage from $7.25 to $9.

"It was an honest assessment of what it takes to live in this city - in Philadelphia, too," New York's Westin said. The proposal has been criticized by some conservative economists who say a $15 wage is not only unlikely but also counterproductive, because restaurant owners on a tight margin would simply lay off workers to stay profitable.

A spokeswoman for the National Restaurant Association said in a statement emailed to the Daily News that "in addition to providing more than 13 million job opportunities, the industry is one of the best paths to achieving the American dream, with 80 percent of owners and managers having started their careers in entry-level positions."

Stuck at the bottom

But many workers feel stuck at the bottom of an economic escalator that isn't moving. The government says that seven out of 10 growth occupations over the next decade will be of the low-wage variety.

Many workers are like West Philadelphia's Dominique Anderson, an 18-year-old single mother who works in a McDonald's on 52nd Street. She lives with her mom and takes classes at the Pennsylvania Institute of Technology, in Center City, with the goal of becoming a medical assistant.

"I looked at other jobs, but this was the one that actually did call back, so I just went with it," said Anderson, who recently saw her salary bumped up to $7.75 an hour. Does she think a $15-an-hour living wage could ever come to the world of fast food?

Maybe, she said: "You never know until you try."


On Twitter: @Will_Bunch

Blog: ph.ly/Attytood.com

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