Before November 2012, fast-food workers in America had never gone on strike. There was a good reason for that. Many burger-flippers were teenagers in need of a few extra bucks, and thanks to high turnover in the industry, most workers didn’t have to stay long in those poverty-wage jobs.
After the economic meltdown of 2007-2008 and the Great Recession, things changed. A disproportionate share of job gains during the “recovery” turned up in the low-wage service sector of the workforce. The result: a growing contingent of adult fast-food workers who can’t find other work. And fast-food wages, which average $8.69 an hour, have dropped by 36 cents an hour since 2010. More than half of the families of fast-food workers are forced to rely on public programs like food stamps and Medicaid to get by.
In November 2012, fed-up workers at franchises like McDonald’s, Wendy’s, and KFC went on strike for the first time, demanding a $15 minimum wage and the right to join unions without retaliation. In the months that followed, these worker protests spread across the country faster than organizers expected. As Naquasia LeGrand, a KFC employee, told me late last year, she joined the first strike in New York City because workers hadn’t seen a dime of the record profits fast food chains are reaping. “We don’t get enough respect” was the way she put it.
Low-wage workers face terrible odds. The other NRA, the National Restaurant Association, which lobbies on behalf of the $600 billion industry, has been fighting minimum wage hikes for decades. In recent years, the group, whose members include KFC, Taco Bell, and Pizza Hut, has more than doubled its lobbying heft on Capitol Hill. Between 2008 and 2013, NRA lobbyists pushing the industry’s interests in Washington shot up from 15 to 37. And don’t forget the 127 lobbyists who represented nine of the association’s biggest members in 2013, up from 56 in 1998. The NRA alone has spent $2.2 million on lobbying since November 2012, and handed out more than $400,000 in campaign contributions as well.
President Obama can call on Congress to increase the minimum wage till hell freezes over, but don’t expect even the modest hike he backs to happen any time soon given the opposition of congressional Republicans, who just happen to have gotten the lion’s share of the NRA’s campaign contributions over the years. In the meantime, folks will keep working three jobs to not get by.
State Department whistleblower and TomDispatch regular Peter Van Buren took an unlikely fall into the minimum-wage world when he lost his job in 2012. Today, he gives us a first-hand look at what it’s like to subsist in poverty-wage America (as he does in his vivid new novel about the hollowing out of the American workforce, Ghosts of Tom Joad: A Story of the #99Percent). Erika Eichelberger
An apartheid of dollars
Life in the new American minimum-wage economy
By Peter Van Buren
There are many sides to whistleblowing. The one that most people don’t know about is the very personal cost, prison aside, including the high cost of lawyers and the strain on family relations, that follows the decision to risk it all in an act of conscience. Here’s a part of my own story I’ve not talked about much before.
At age 53, everything changed. Following my whistleblowing first book, We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People, I was run out of the good job I had held for more than 20 years with the U.S. Department of State. As one of its threats, State also took aim at the pension and benefits I’d earned, even as it forced me into retirement. Would my family and I lose everything I’d worked for as part of the retaliation campaign State was waging? I was worried. That pension was the thing I’d counted on to provide for us and it remained in jeopardy for many months. I was scared.
My skill set was pretty specific to my old job. The market was tough in the Washington, D.C. area for someone with a suspended security clearance. Nobody with a salaried job to offer seemed interested in an old guy, and I needed some money. All the signs pointed one way — toward the retail economy and a minimum-wage job.