“On what I’m earning right now you have to choose between paying your rent and eating the next day,” says 32 year-old Christopher Drumgold, a father of two who works at a McDonald’s in Detroit. His story, along with that of thousands of others, is finally coming to the spotlight as employees are mobilizing to say that their wages are unsustainable and unsupportive. According to the Census Bureau, the income threshold level for a family of four to be in poverty is $23,000. Yet the median pay for a fast-food worker is just about $18,500, based on a $9/hour payment — over $4,000 less than the poverty level.
Fast-food workers and labor groups are now calling for a $15/hour minimum wage and many are also asking for opportunities to unionize. Beginning with walk-outs in individual fast-food restaurants last year, the movement has progressed from the local to a national scale. A national strike by fast-food employees is set to take place on August 29.
Here are three important points to keep in mind about the fast-food worker strike.
1. The federal minimum wage is $7.25 per hour. This is the wage that many of the strikers receive. While the workers are demanding almost double the federal minimum wage, a request that almost no business person would immediately indulge, here is some more perspective regarding a livable wage.
CBS News cites the Living Wage project: “A single adult in New York would need to make $12.75 an hour, which is far above the $9 an hour minimum wage that New York State has plans to implement over the next three years. Add a child and the number jumps to $24.69. In Chicago, that adult would need $10.48. In Milwaukee, $9.48. A living wage in Flint, Mich., is $8.57. Put differently, in Flint, an economically depressed city in a state with a $7.40 minimum wage, an hourly worker at the low end is making nearly 16% too little to get by. An adult with two children at minimum wage in the city would be below the poverty line.”
2. Fast-food employees are non-unionized. According to the New York Times, “None of the nation’s 200,000-plus fast-food restaurants are unionized.” As a result, unions are helping these workers organize. President Mary Kay Henry of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) explains the union’s involvement: “Our primary goal is to help workers boost wages. We think a key part of that is helping workers form organizations where they can directly bargain for wages with their employers.” While some argue that labor union involvement is mainly altruistic, others have been claiming that this is more of a strategic step for labor leaders. According to some business groups, “these organizations are merely ‘union fronts’ designed to operate outside labor laws so they don’t have to follow restrictions on secondary picketing, boycotts, or file reports with the Labor Department."
3. It is important to recognize the major demographics involved in the fast food industry. Jezebel highlights the main groups: “The average fast food worker is 28 years old. Two thirds of the industry's workforce is comprised of women; their average age is 32, and they are mostly women of color. The majority are supporting children and families on $7.50 minimum wage, no benefits, and few hours. (Few work full-time because the industry cuts work hours at 32 hours so they don't have to give benefits…).” While the economic situation is burdensome in isolation, the other marginalized identities of many fast-food workers have their own set of relevant challenges with daily living.
The implications of this movement are large. Whether or not workers are able to raise the minimum wage to $15 is one thing, but the fact that there is now an unparalleled amount of action in the industry means that something is bound to happen in the near future. Dorian T. Warren, a professor from Columbia University, says, “Many are earning so little they have nothing to lose.” Fast-food workers will continue to fight until they see some change.