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David Dayen: Fast Food, Retail Worker Strikes Actually Honor King Legacy

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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.

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31 comments

  1. allcoppedout

    I think this is spot on. I could barely stomach Obama mouthing on about MLK and the struggle of these workers seems much closer to the point. MLT and Henry George thought solutions lay in guaranteeing a minimum standard of living whether or not people work, facing employers with a de facto minimum quality of work life. I’m proud of these guys.

    Much of what we do needs turning upside down and street action to bring change. The employment relationship is key to human rights.

    My apologies for the 75% US kids going hungry claim yesterday – I meant 75% classrooms with a hungry child. We are miles away from genuine civil rights because we use poverty and hunger as means to control and ‘motivate’. The minimum wage here (UK) is $9.79 but that’s at 22. It’s $5.71 at 16 (from Oct 2013). In Denmark there is no set minimum, but it’s about $19 an hour. I wonder how we come to hate people enough to keep them unemployed or on dud wages.

  2. Kim Kaufman

    This so-called celebration of MLK on Wednesday and Saturday was woefully inadequate and, to me, downright embarrassing. I heard that – but mercifully did not hear – Cory Booker spoke on Saturday. A real jobs and economic justice guy. Obama’s speech was nauseating – acting like huge income inequality and the rest of it had nothing to do with him – and yet much of it, in fact, came from his policies in the last 5 years.

    Whether these fast food worker strikes will get results, many will be educated and empowered… for the next action. Because something’s got to change.

  3. psychohistorian

    While I support what these folks are doing to better their lives I want to speak to the bigger context of this situation.

    There are not and will not be enough “jobs” for those who want them at any wage rate. And the situation is not getting better with continuing advances in technology…I read recently about a machine to fry burgers replacing humans and its doesn’t stop there.

    So, are we going to condemn all the folks who can’t compete their way into a job to social genocide? It certainly looks like it is being done consciously by the lack of discussion of job, employment and population trends. If I was one of those folk I might be a bit unhappy and not having anything to lose they might want to express their frustration on the rest of us. And there are enough of them that killing them all might just be a step too far for many other humans.

    So while we need people with jobs to be provided a living wage, do we just ignore the rest?

    My proposal would be to redefine both support from and responsibility to society by all…..at least minimums to keep those at the current “bottom” of society from blind social genocide.

    1. TimR

      It’s sort of amusing to try to picture this future automated world… I heard a tech CEO on NPR last night talking about it, about how everywhere he looks he sees jobs that will be automated in the next 5-10 years. Well, maybe. Lots of potential detours before that happy utopia arrives.

      But just thinking about how somebody like that imagines this utopia looking… I guess he’s thinking of a world where everyone is a “knowledge worker,” walking around (when not biking, or riding in self-driving cars) in these sanitized landscapes, fully “plugged in” via one’s devices, into all the amenities and facilities one interacts with. The only human interaction would be with the other knowledge worker types who populate this happy happy vista. I’m not exactly sure where the former service workers went (in his imagination I mean.) They can’t all get “re-skilled” or whatever. Maybe propaganda was used to convince them all to go find an ice floe somewhere in Antarctica and just stay out of everybody’s hair? Eddie Bernays could probably have managed it – have Miley Cyrus go on a big ice floe kick or something and soon everybody else will want to live on ice floes too.

      It sounds dismal to me, but what we’ve got now is pretty dismal too. We interact with “real” people, but most of us are not really that real are we – we’ve been fragmented, anonymized, made into widgets in an economy rather than humans who exist for ourselves and our own purposes. We’re not like the happy farmers at the end of Kurosawa’s “Seven Samurai,” singing as we work because the bandits have been defeated and we know we’ll reap the rewards of our labor.

      1. Waking Up

        TimR states, “We interact with “real” people, but most of us are not really that real are we – we’ve been fragmented, anonymized, made into widgets in an economy rather than humans who exist for ourselves and our own purposes.”

        It seems to me that the reason we as a society are fragmented is BECAUSE we humans have come to believe we exist for OURSELVES and OUR own purposes. The individuals in the “we” have stopped thinking about the bigger picture and our role in society at large. Unless and until “we” can show compassion not just towards our friends and family, but, those in our communities, states, nations, and ultimately on the planet, can we fight this fragmentation.

        If we stop a President from having a “kill list” to destroy people on the other side of the planet, maybe our society could focus on better living conditions for those near us such as adequate pay for fast food and retail workers. If we demand justice; not just for the wealthy, corporations, and financial community, but for all citizens, well…how differently would people feel simply by expecting justice for all. Frankly, I have never seen a more corrupt President and administration in my lifetime than Obama, and yes, that includes Nixon, Clinton, and Bush.

        It’s time to stop being afraid of the word “socialized” and start interacting “socially” with those around us and looking at the bigger picture. If “we” as a society can’t or won’t do that, then we are truly going to implode from within.

        1. TimR

          I didn’t mean “for ourselves and our own purposes” as some exaltation of selfishness. I meant, people should be considered as human beings, not as cogs in a profit machine. Yeesh. Does that need to be excoriated?

          I meant too, the farmers in Kurosawa’s film were not being exploited by anyone – the bandits had been defeated. In our world, the bandits have institutionalized exploitation and are milking the population for more and more and leaving them less and less.

      2. tts

        There is nothing “amusing” or “utopia” about our more automated future.

        That is why psychohistorian is talking about and arguing against “societal genocide” which is looking more and more likely in just such a future. There is no public discussion of enacting some sort of social welfare programs like what we’d need to prevent a new unemployable under class from forming.

        The closest you’ll see to any sort of discussion on the subject by the media/politicians is the vilifying of the “takers”, people who need and make use of current very meager social welfare programs, and how we should cut what little social safety nets we do have. Which is supposed to be good for everyone involved, especially the poor, because after all its not like making the poors’ lives worse has ever turned out badly before right?

    2. cwaltz

      For what it’s worth I looked at that Burger machine and from what I saw it wouldn’t “eliminate” a whole lot. At most fast food joints you have about 2 to max 3 people per shift preparing food. The machine requires at least one person to man the machine to feed it. It doesn’t do dishes. It can’t take out trash bins. It would strictly be utilized for burgers so you’d still need someone to work your fryer for chicken and fries. You can’t have it clean up a customer restroom and it’s initial cost is over $100,000.

      There’s a reason that we haven’t automated thus far and that reason is the technology to replace workers is way more expensive than actual workers and technology that is cheap has not advanced enough to allow it to multitask in the same way a living, breathing human can.

      1. tts

        So because the automation tech is too expensive now and/or in the past it’ll always be too expensive in the future?

        FYI there are already mostly automated fast food restaurants in Japan where almost everything, including taking your order, is done via machine.

        The automation is already starting to pop up here in the states, in small and simple ways, but its only a matter of time before most of those fast food jobs are gone:
        https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vDJc1NoGg2g

        FYI many car companies plan on having fully automated cars available by 2020 too. So those Taxi and truck driving jobs start to go away too in around 10 years or so.

  4. Hayek's Heelbiter

    Just a thought experiment.

    What if there were a law that taxed any company whose employees were on Medicaid, food stamps, etc. the cost of their benefits plus a 25% administration fee?

    I, as an honest taxpayer, am fed up subsidizing these parasites who refuse to pay their employees a living wage.

    I know that it’s not likely to happen as these compananies would bribe the legislators to not even consider such a proposal.

    Is there another way to implement such an idea?

    What say ye?

    1. Sasquatch

      Hayek, sounds logical, but in “at will” states it would simply create perverse incentives to dispose of such employees. Or simply never hire them in the first place.

    2. Lexington

      Of course corporations would lobby against such a “tax”, and in the extremely unlikely event one were implemented their next step would be to work for the abolition of those programs.

      Any proposed reform must take into account the fact that corporations wield much greater political power in America than ordinary citizens (and as an aside note how in contemporary discourse the word “citizen” has been almost completely replaced with “taxpayer”. I invite you to meditate on the implications of this change in vocabulary).

    3. nycTerrierist

      Hayek,

      What a great idea. Even if corporate lobbying puts
      the kibosh on it, a public campaign promoting this plan would
      be a great consciousness-raiser – and maybe even a rabble rouser – for the sheeple.

      to Sasquatch: point taken. But isn’t the greater point here to get rid of jobs that don’t pay adequate wage?

  5. TC

    “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.”

    Back in 1963 the U.S. was not the post-industrial scrap heap it is today, so the appropriateness of a wage on a non-value-added job being indexed to account for 50 years of cruel, criminal inflation is debatable.

    Well enough at this point is the push to unionize for the sake of building an organization that can with one voice shriek, “Seize the Fed!,” that productive industry in the U.S. be resurrected with cheap financing coming from a Fed turned into a Hamiltonian national bank. Then, such service jobs as today are organizing to strike can become once again not careers for desperate souls, but prods raising motivation to seize boundless opportunity, such as today have been buried in a debt trap erected by imperialist hacks an unpenetrating free press give a free pass by presenting so-called “leaders” as though these were “respectable authorities” beyond reproach, let alone a charge of treason.

    1. petridish

      “…post-industrial scrap heap…”

      Apt, albeit pathetic, characterization. May I quote you?

  6. Spring Texan

    Great article, I’d like to quote it, but when I copy something it does not copy and just says “Read more at etc.” instead.

    I don’t care if that is APPENDED to what I copy (I’m gonna include the link anyway), but if I can’t quote enough to entice the people I send it to to read it, chances are they may not go out to read it at all. Moreover, I can’t then quote something and comment on it.

    Grrr.

  7. TimR

    I’ve seen several people lately mention that Australia has a $15 minimum wage and yet fast food prices are comparable to those in the US. So does that come out of the owners’ pockets? Australian McDonalds et al make less money for shareholders than in the US?

    1. ChrisCairns

      Yes, about $15 per hour, we are a high wage country. My 18 year son earns $22 per hour as a casual bartender.

      But let’s face it, McDonalds has no idea of how to operate in a civil society and has no social conscience. Lowest cost is its operating model and they have crushed our potato farmers and other suppliers by paying the absolute minimum.

      I went to Philippines recently were the local Maccas is called Jollibee. There, the kids are lucky to take home a few dollars a da day and are laid off after 6 months to avoid paying benefits like leave.

      That’s Maccas for you and what free markets are all about, profits for the capitalists and fuck you to labor.

    2. tts

      Contrary to popular belief worker’s wages really don’t impact the cost all that much.

      http://tipsfortips.files.wordpress.com/2010/08/burger-cost.jpg

      On top of that there are lots of things in the fast food business where the profits are insane.

      Soda for example only costs pennies per cup. The actual paper cup its put in costs more than the soda…but they’ll sell it for $1 or more per cup. French fries also have a huge profit margins too.

      Fast food restaurants would maybe have to raise their meal prices by $.30-50 per meal to offset a $15/hr wage and still maintain their profits. Which is something that is very doable.

      If that sounds crazy to you remember that corporate profits are at a all time high, even higher now than at the peak of the bubble. But compensation and jobs are still being depressed. Especially since the few jobs that are being made are service sector jobs with low pay, little or no benefits, no job security, and little or no opportunity for advancement.

  8. David Wayne

    Is it just me, or does anyone else think the whole time the pres is giving a rousing speech on the legacy of Martin Luther King that if MLK were doing his thing today, there would have been issued a secret presidential finding of domestic bad guy and the full force and weight of the US government would be set upon him?

  9. PQS

    Absolutely spot on. MLK was far, far more radical than the current profiles on the tube suggest. Why do you think the police and the Establishment were so afraid of him? Why do you think the FBI spied on him and blackmailed him and the other leaders of the movement? They could see that Civil Rights was just one steppingstone in the fight for human dignity for everyone, including economic dignity.

  10. Brooklin Bridge

    [...]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,[...] – “in the words of Joe Stiglitz”

    Wah??? “Obama’s efforts to privatize reform [????] our health care system and to <wage a full frontal assault on defend [?????] the social safety net for the elderly, the poor and the disabled,”

    Obama???? defend the saftey net??????

    This may be nit picking, but what exactly is Joe Stiglitz smoking, other than, perhaps, his “excellent piece on how King shaped his work”…???

    1. Brooklin Bridge

      second sentence should have read,

      Wah??? “Obama’s efforts to privatize reform [????] our health care system and to wage a full frontal assault on defend [?????] the social safety net for the elderly, the poor and the disabled,”

    2. diptherio

      Yeah, I was rather taken aback by Stiglitz’s apparent ignorance of Obama’s hopes for a Grand Betrayal. Amazing how oblivious otherwise intelligent people can be…

  11. Brooklin Bridge

    Speaking of Obama and his complete disdain and contempt for the reeking irony in his own balderdash, I simply can’t help but point out the “Banner” in HuffPo this morning where there is a big picture of the Obama with the quote caption that Syria “THERE NEED TO BE CONSEQUENCES” for it’s actions?????

    see http://www.huffingtonpost.com/ or http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/08/28/us-syria-conflict_n_3827964.html

    This from the man who looks forward not back when it comes to United States president George Bush and his Vice President, Dick Cheney committing war crimes against humanity? This from the man who has ensured that not a single high level banker went to jail for trashing the global economy, re-defining ownership to legitimize massive theft by banks, and throwing thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of homeowners out of their houses immorally and illegally.

    I really would love to know when people say Obama isn’t as bad as the other choice, just how bad does Obama have to be before he becomes as bad as the other side?

    1. just_kate

      Yep, this morning on CSPAN a caller said they supported US military action against the Syrian government because they broke international laws so we have a duty to respond. WASS.

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