By David Dayen, a lapsed blogger, now a freelance writer based in Los Angeles, CA. Follow him on Twitter @ddayen
The March on Washington’s 50th anniversary resulted in two commemorative events: the one Saturday with comments by Eric Holder and Nancy Pelosi, and the one yesterday with speeches by three Presidents, including Obama. Needless to say this is a bit of an inversion of the original message of a March ON rather than WITH Washington. So I would argue that the major tribute this week to the legacy and message of that march, a march for jobs and freedom, is actually today’s national retail worker strike for a higher wage, which takes what had been a one-off model and expanded it. Events are expected in as many as 50 cities, maybe more. And where the initial events were just with fast-food workers at places like McDonald’s and Wendy’s, apparently workers at retailers like Macy’s are involved in some cities.
The striking workers are demanding the right to unionize and at least $15 an hour in pay, more than double the current national minimum wage of $7.25 [...]
“These companies that own these fast food restaurants, they make way too much money off the backs of the employees,” says Dearius Merritt, a 24-year-old worker at Church’s Chicken in Memphis who earns $13 an hour and plans to take part in his first strike Thursday. “I’m in the store every day with these workers that make $7.25…If I’m 30 years old and this is what I have to do to survive, then I deserve a living wage off of it.”
The rumblings against the long-standing economics of fast food began last November in New York, when about 200 restaurant workers went on strike in a one-day protest. By July the movement had ballooned to include thousands of workers across seven other cities, including Chicago, Detroit, and Kansas City. Now, with workers in places like Los Angeles, Memphis, and Raleigh getting involved—with extensive financial backing from the Service Employees International Union—organizers and labor experts expect this week’s strike to dwarf previous protests.
Another correlation: the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom included the concrete demand for a $2 an hour minimum wage, which in today’s dollars would be $15.27.
This is an area where labor has collaborated despite the lack of collective bargaining in this sector. SEIU has been involved in trying to organize these non-union workers, as well as the United Food and Commercial Workers union, newly joined as part of the AFL-CIO federation. So the entire labor movement is making a play for the fast food/retail space.
They’re wise to do it. This is the growth industry of our time, and it has become a breadwinner job; just 16% of all fast-food workers are teenagers, from 25% ten years ago. Post-recession job growth has come almost entirely from this sector or low-wage sectors like it. These are the new manufacturing jobs, staffed by Americans denied access to the opportunities of elites. Their unity is all they have as a bargaining chip.
The fact that the workers are calling for $15/hour has been criticized by people who apparently don’t know a negotiating tactic when they see one. The strikes so far have resulted in smaller wage increases, up to 50 cents an hour. That’s what’s called building worker power.
The stories of the workers, collected here by Allison Kilkenny, are necessary reading:
Angela Gholston, 24, has been working at a McDonald’s in Detroit for two years, and says she’s participating in the strike to help form a union, and make better wages so she can support her family and pay her bills.
“I receive Medicaid because I can’t even afford to pay for my employer’s health care plan,” she says.
Gholston has participated in past strikes at work, and says she feels emboldened by the organizing she’s seen in other states.
“They’re trying to help us and we’re trying to help them, and that’s good. We have to stand together in order to keep this movement going. We need [fifteen dollars-per-hour minimum wage], not $7.40. What can we do with $7.40?” [...]
Dwight Murray, 27, has been working at a McDonald’s in Indianapolis since March, and says he’s participating in the strike because he gives a lot to McDonald’s.
“I work hard and I deserve to make enough to meet my family’s basic needs,” says Murray. “I struggle to get my three-year-old daughter what she needs, and we have to make sacrifices on a regular basis. I’m going on strike because I deserve to make a liveable wage and to be able to take care of my daughter and even have money saved up for emergencies.”
I think people not involved directly in this organizing are prone to dismiss this movement because there’s a 60-year expectation that labor is on the decline and the law works against their resurgence. But while nothing will happen overnight, this is one of the more hopeful developments of the past few years. It’s a direct assault on the wage/productivity gap, and it tries to use the only thing that has created a counterweight to this within the capitalist structure in the recent American past – collective action. The fact that these are un-outsourceable jobs, the last manufacturing jobs immune to such pressures (making a burger is a kind of manufacturing), makes this more achievable, though again, it will take a lot of struggle, as all labor fights do.
Martin Luther King returning to America would see far more of himself in this strike than in a parade of hagiographic tributes to his speechmaking abilities. The President talked about economic justice in his speech (“What does it profit a man, Dr. King would ask, to sit at an integrated lunch counter if he can’t afford the meal?”), but he acknowledged that the goals of King’s movement fell the most short here, and he rhetorically surrendered the responsibility to achieve those goals to another generation. In the words of Joe Stiglitz, who has an excellent piece on how King shaped his work:
Who knows how Dr. King’s life would have unfolded had it not been cut short by an assassin’s bullet… While he would have likely embraced President Obama’s efforts to reform our health care system and to defend the social safety net for the elderly, the poor and the disabled, it is difficult to imagine that someone of such acute moral acumen would look at the America of today with anything short of despair.
Despite rhetoric about the land of opportunity, a young American’s life prospects are more dependent on the income and education of his parents than in almost any other advanced country. And thus, the legacy of discrimination and lack of educational and job opportunity is perpetuated, from one generation to the next [...]
While outright race-based segregation in schools was banned, in reality, educational segregation has worsened in recent decades, as Gary Orfield and other scholars have documented.
Part of the reason is that the country has become more economically segregated. Poor black children are more likely to live in communities with concentrated poverty — some 45 percent do so, as opposed to 12 percent for poor white children, as the Economic Policy Institute has pointed out… [King] was right to recognize that these persistent divides are a cancer in our society, undermining our democracy and weakening our economy. His message was that the injustices of the past were not inevitable. But he knew, too, that dreaming was not enough.
The fast-food and retail worker actions resemble the Poor People’s Campaign, King’s expected next move once he finished lending a hand to the Memphis sanitation worker’s strike in April 1968. King planned to establish a peaceful gathering in Washington to force Congress and the President to attend to the needs of the poor, particularly extending aid on jobs, health care and housing. And they were going to stay in the streets until action was taken. (Occupy?) The Poor People’s Campaign did happen in King’s absence, with a six-week encampment on the National Mall. Ultimately it fizzled.
This is a different tactic, more of a traditional labor action. But the goals are certainly the same: respect, dignity, a living wage. After the march, King would support a Basic Income Guarantee, which is not discussed too much anymore (here’s an unexpected endorsement), as well as a job guarantee. He wanted to find a way to establish economic security. He would have been proud of those fast food workers fighting for their rights today, armed only with courage.