The first notable strike in the U.S. fast food industry happened in New York City in 2012, with workers demanding a $15 per hour minimum wage and the right to unionize. Since then, as the U.S. economy has continued to suffer from the 2007-08 financial crisis, and continues its long-term downward spiral into severe economic inequality, these demands by low-wage workers are becoming steadily louder. And workers are becoming more active in asserting these demands; sporadic strikes and protests have now led to plans for a massive strike by fast food workers in 150 American cities, along with their counterparts in 30 other countries, set to take place on May 15th. The demands–a $15/hr minimum wage and expanded worker protections–have not changed, and they resonate with similar, broader messages coming out of the Obama administration and many state and local leaders.
Especially since the economic crisis that began around 2007, the fast food sector has been one of the fastest growing sectors of the economy. However, wages in that sector have been relatively stagnant, the positions are mostly part-time and provide few or no benefits, unsteady income, and almost no opportunities for advancement. In fact, less than 9% of the total working population in these industries makes it to a supervisory position, and only 2% have a managerial role. The conventional wisdom for many is that fast food jobs are staffed mostly by teenagers who will continue their education and eventually move on to more rewarding career positions, this simply is not true: 25- to 54-year-olds are the lion’s share of workers in the sector. The fast food labor market is flooded with people who have lost higher-paying jobs and now struggle to keep themselves financially afloat.
For reference, at the current federal minimum wage of $7.25 per hour, a full-time minimum wage worker would earn $15,080.00. (Of course, nearly everyone in that economic sector works fewer than forty hours per week, since companies reduce labor costs by not offering regular schedules or full-time benefits.) Since the poverty rate for individuals is $11,945.00, and for a family with two children it is $22,283.00, working for minimum wage is barely enough to keep an individual out of poverty, and not nearly enough for a family.
Another advantage for companies of maintaining a workforce of minimum wage, transitory, part-time workers is that those workers are in a poor position to organize or advocate for themselves. However, we seem to see a growing sense of injustice among fast food workers, who see themselves working for poverty-level wages in an extremely profitable industry that uses every means at its disposal to minimize labor costs. This sense of injustice is combined with a growing feeling among workers that the absence of opportunities makes activism and organizing worth the risk. Employers argue that raising the minimum wage could cause them to hire fewer people. But the evidence for this claim is far from conclusive, and in the meantime we have choices to make about how difficult it should be for hard-working people to climb off the bottom rung of the economic ladder.
If you believe your rights have been violated in the workplace, please call The Harman Firm, LLP.