Low-wage workers in seven cities walked off the job Monday in a coordinated effort to demand a $15 hourly wage, which the workers call a "living wage," and the ability to unionize without fear of retaliation. Despite their efforts, though, it is unlikely that such a wage hike will be coming anytime soon.
Workers struck in New York City, Chicago, Detroit, Milwaukee, St. Louis, Flint, and Kansas City. The strike primarily targeted fast food chains, including McDonald's, Burger King, Wendy's, KFC, Papa John's, and Domino's. Other retail workers went on strike as well, though, including VIctoria's Secret, Macy's, and Dollar Tree employees. For most companies, the strike began on Monday, though for others it started as early as Friday. The strike is expected to continue until Thursday.
Such strikes are hardly new. In fact, this strike is the third of the year. Prior strikes having already taken place in New York, Chicago, Milwaukee, Detroit, and St. Louis. In April, hundreds of strikers protested in New York and Detroit. Another strike occurred in November. These strikes are part of several larger campaigns, including Fast Food Forward in New York and Fight for 15 in Chicago and are organized by groups like New York Communities for Change, Action Now, and Jobs with Justice.
The protests have received support from labor groups, including the Service Employees International Union. SEIU president Mary Kay Henry explained the union's support, stating, "SEIU members, like all service-sector workers, are worse off when large fast-food and retail companies are able to hold down wages and push down benefit standards for working people."
The workers have defended the walkouts, asserting that they cannot live on the salaries they currently earn. Additionally, retribution for attempted unionization prevents them from working together towards better conditions. Greg Reynoso, 23, a former Domino's deliveryman who was fired for taking coworkers to a pro-union rally, said that "We live in America. Why shouldn't we have unions? We deserve to make more money. How can we live? It's impossible."
Furthermore, for the workers, the strike does not represent a great risk. As one striker said, "I'm not really concerned about losing my job. If I don't do anything, I am in a lose-lose situation. I can still get fired at any time." As such, workers in these seven cities are laying their current employment on the line in hopes of bettering their own situation and improving the opportunities for other workers and the opportunities they can provide for their children. Nasquasia LeGrand, a KFC employee on strike in New York, stated, "I don't want to see the next generation suffering and suffering. I don't want my kids suffering. I want to make sure they have a better future than I do … So if I want that to happen, I need you guys to stand with me just as long as I'm standing with you."
Companies, on the other hand, argue that the wages are fair. They claim that the companies have low profit margins that cannot stand the increased cost and that low-wage jobs are stepping stones to advancement within the company. They assert those claims despite the fact that fewer than one in 50 jobs in the fast food industry is managerial and the fact that many franchise owners make six figures. The CEO of McDonald's, for instance, earned $13.8 million. Besides, in the words of Domino's Vice President Tim McIntyre, "We don't believe unions are necessary for our brand..."
As it stands, the workers are unlikely to gain the pay increases they desire. $15 per hour would be 66% higher than the $9.02 per hour that the average American fast food cook earns. It is certainly higher than the federal minimum wage ($7.25) or the wages in the states (highest: Washington at $9.19 per hour). As such, it would be a dramatic increase in the immediate cost to the companies if they were to grant a $15 an hour wage. Even with their large profits, an approximately $12,000 raise (assuming full-time employment 50 weeks per year) in cost per worker in a short time would be problematic for the companies (though it could be feasible over time).
Furthermore, there is limited economic incentive for the companies to increase their wages. With unemployment at 7.6%, the companies can replace low-skilled workers. Additionally, these are for-profit companies with a responsibility to their stockholders. They exist to make money, not to take care of workers, despite any moral or sentimental inclinations or obligations. Taking those facts in conjunction, despite the protests, the companies are economically incentivized against acquiescing to the strikers' demands.
Thus, no matter the "living wage" in any of those cities, it is unlikely that employers will be motivated to raise employee pay.