Bill Knight column for Mon., Tues. or Wed., June 10, 11 or 12
The Midwest seems to be leading a nationwide drive by fast-food workers to improve their jobs through better wages and the right to unionize.
In the last few weeks, actions in Chicago, St. Louis, Milwaukee and Detroit – OK, plus New York City – have achieved some victories and served notice that management can no longer “have it their way.”
In a series of one-day walkouts and rallies at Burger King, Jimmy John’s, KFC, McDonald’s, Popeye’s, Subway, Taco Bell, Wendy’s and other joints, workers are demanding a living wage – enough to stay above the poverty line (in the United States, that’s currently $23,550 for a two-adult, two-kid household, or $11.32/hour).
They’re doing so dealing with profitable companies that pay their executives very handsomely as they pay rank-and-file workers minimum wage with no benefits.
Fast-food workers earn an average wage of about $9/hour, according to the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics. Adjusted for inflation, fast-food employees’ pay has dropped 36 cents an hour in the last three years.
The fast-food labor force no longer is just teenagers in high-turnover, part-time positions; many adults work there because they can’t find other jobs.
“It’s a job for adults supporting families,” National Employment Law Project lawyer Tsedeye Gebreselassie told USA Today. Talking to Salon.com, she added, “Because these are the jobs that are dominant in our economy, the fact that they are very low-wage jobs [is] setting the standards for how some businesses think they can treat their workers.”
Fast-food corporations defend their wages and working condition as a start. In a prepared statement, a spokesman for Burger King said that that company has provided "an entry point into the work force for millions of Americans."
As if subsisting on a minimum wage isn’t enough of a struggle, some fast-food restaurants are threatening to cut employees’ hours to fewer than 30 per week so workers wouldn’t be eligible for health insurance starting in 2014. However, others are compromising with workers. In St. Louis, one Jimmy John’s location removed a manager about whom strikers complained, and clergy accompanied workers back to their jobs to ensure they wouldn't be fired.
In Detroit, more than 500 turned out, according to a Michigan group, D15 campaign, a coalition including Good Jobs Now and various faith-based and labor groups, such as Service Employees.
“Detroit fast-food and retail workers have come together to fight for fair wages and the right to form a union without interference,” D15’s website says. “We represent workers from more than 50 employers – food and retail – who are making tremendous profits, but do not pay employees like us enough to support our families and to cover basic needs like food, health care, rent and transportation.”
In Detroit, U.S. Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.), the second-longest-serving member of Congress and a longtime advocate for working Americans, joined demonstrators’ picket line.
D15 notes that there are now more fast-food workers in Detroit than there are auto workers.
“There are now more than 50,000 fast-food jobs in the Detroit metro area – more than twice as many as in the auto-manufacturing sector,” D15 says. “Fast-food jobs are projected to grow by 12.3% in the area by 2018 – more than twice as fast as the projected growth rate of the region’s workforce as a whole. But these jobs are the lowest-paying in Detroit, with many workers earning $7.40 or just above it.
“These are billion-dollar companies that can afford to pay their employees better,” the coalition says. “When workers join together and are paid a living wage, not only will it strengthen the economy but it will also reduce crime in our neighborhoods.”
One Detroit McDonald’s reportedly tried to bring in scabs, but the jobless people they hired joined the strikers, according to Press Associates, Inc.
In St. Louis, about 100 took part in the work stoppage, where thousands of supporters rallied with them, according to the St. Louis Labor Tribune, which reported that local clergy told affected store managers of the planned protests and of workers’ right to strike without fear of retaliation.
“Your employees are striking for a living wage,” the Rev. Martin Rafanan told a manager for one Wendy’s, where six workers walked out. “They have a right to do so. We expect no retaliation. If there is, we will be back, in greater numbers.”
Meanwhile, a Syracuse, N.Y., McDonald’s found itself the defendant in a workers lawsuit claiming that bosses illegally cut workers’ overtime by unilaterally changing time sheets.
It seems that workers are starting to “Think outside the bun.”
[PICTURED: Milwaukee fast-food workers and supporters picket a Burger King there, from the Wisconsin AFL-CIO.)