by Paul Davidson, USA TODAY
Low-wage workers across the country are clocking out and rising up.
Fast-food employees plan a day of nationwide strikes today to demand higher pay in the largest of a series of industry protests that have rippled across the USA since last fall.
In the pre-Labor Day walkout, workers in at least 58 cities will picket restaurants such as McDonald's, Burger King and KFC during peak lunch hours, calling for $15-an hour-pay and the right to form a union without fear of retaliation. The event is also intended to roughly coincide with the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, a protest as much about economic justice as civil rights.
At a ceremony Wednesday commemorating the march, President Obama said that many of its goals have been achieved - but not economic opportunity for all Americans.
"For over a decade, working Americans of all races have seen their wages and incomes stagnate, even as corporate profits soar, even as the pay of a fortunate few explodes," he said. Obama has called for raising the federal minimum wage from $7.25 to $9, but the measure has stalled in Congress.
The wave of fast-food demonstrations comes as low-wage jobs dominate employment growth in the 4-year-old recovery, and as more adults find themselves aging inpositions that used to be career stepping-stones for teenagers. The trend has strained the nation's social safety net: More than a quarter of Americans earning less than $15 an hour receive one or more social services, such as food stamps and Medicaid, says the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities. Nearly 48 million people receive food stamps, more than in any year of the 2007-09 recession.
Persistently low wages for millions of Americans also dampens consumer spending and economic growth, economists say.
The frustrations of financially pressed Americans have sparked a movement to rally workers in fast-food and other industries long insulated from union influence, including Wal-Mart stores, car washes, and port trucking companies. They are often workplaces reliant on temporary, part-time, or immigrant employees who traditionally have been difficult to organize, and owned by powerful corporations that have vigorously discouraged union efforts.
Labor officials are adopting innovative new strategies to unite workers in less formal ways while painstakingly building a wider base of potential union members. Their push comes as the portion of Americans belonging to unions has fallen sharply to 11.5% from 25% in 1980.
"There's absolutely a new wave of organizing action among low-wage workers across the nation," says Paul Sonn, legal co-director of the National Employment Law Project (NELP). "In the past, there was a sense it was hard to organize these low-wage industries. Now they've become the centerpiece of our economy."
Meanwhile, states and cities are responding to the public pressure. Thirteen states and several cities have raised the minimum wage this year. Washington, D.C.'s City Council last month approved a bill requiring big-box retailers to pay a "living wage" of at least $12.50 an hour. And last year in California, Long Beach voters passed a measure requiring $13-an-hour pay for hotel workers.
U.S. corporations, however, say that forcing them to raise wages will mean fewer jobs and higher prices, hurting those with lower incomes in particular.
Jobs paying less than $14 an hour in fast food, retail, home health care and other fields made up one of every five jobs lost in the recession, but they account for three of every five new jobs in the recovery, according to NELP.
Many of them are held by adults, some of whom were laid off from much-better-paying positions during the recession. Eighty-eight percent of workers in jobs paying less than $10 an hour are older than 20, and a third are older than 40, according to the Economic Policy Institute.
"People are spending large chunks of their careers in these jobs," Sonn says.
Yet the pay is meager. In fast food, the average hourly wage for non-management employees was $9.08 in June - or $18,886 a year for full-time workers - up from $8.66 when the recovery began in June 2009.
With unemployment still high at 7.4%, the supply of U.S. workers continues to outstrip employer demand, leaving wages stagnant for most Americans. Inflation-adjusted wages for front-line fast-food jobs, most of which are considered low-skill, have fallen sharply: 3.9%.
Morris Cornley, 57, began working as a delivery driver at a Jimmy John's gourmet sandwich outlet in Kansas City, Mo., early last year after he was laid off from his $45,000-a-year truck-driving job. He earns $7.35 an hour and works about 33 hours a week, taking home $370 or so every two weeks after taxes.
"I'm not really living - I'm surviving," says Cornley, who plans to take part in worker demonstrations Thursday instead of showing up for his shift.
Cornley rents a two-bedroom house for $475 a month. "I struggle to pay all my bills at one time," he says.
The Army war veteran each month receives $1,000 in medical disability and $46 in food stamps. "These are the jobs that are out there - fast-food jobs," he says. "I could be in this industry for quite a long time and if I am I'd like to make a living wage."
Nancy Salgado, 26, of Chicago, earns $8.25 an hour, Illinois' minimum wage, as a McDonald's cashier, though she has worked for the company for 10 years. Salgado, who has no health benefits, says she relies on Medicaid to provide her two children health care and often skimps on their clothing purchases.
"If they give you a raise, it's like 10 cents" an hour, she says. "I'm like, 'Really - You guys make millions and billions a year."
In a statement, McDonald's said it "aims to offer competitive pay and benefits to our employees" and provides training for those wishing to advance to management.
The fast-food worker movement began with a strike by 200 workers in New York City last November, and then spread to Chicago, St. Louis, Detroit, Milwaukee, Seattle, Kansas City and Flint, Mich. The walkouts have been spearheaded by local community groups and churches, and backed with millions of dollars from the Service Employees International Union (SEIU).
"Just like auto jobs became good middle-class jobs at the turn-of-the-century, we want to be a part of helping service work become an entry point into a new American middle class," SEIU President Mary Kay Henry says.
Although the SEIU has provided advice and support to the fast-food protests, it has not led them. Such overt union involvement would brand the campaign as a formal organizing effort and allow the fast-food corporations or franchisees to call for store-by-store votes on whether a union should be formed, says Kate Bronfenbrenner, director of labor education research at at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y. The votes likely would fail, forcing the SEIU to cease its involvement altogether.
"Rather than be upfront about it, they're creating these front groups that are really skirting federal law," says Glenn Spencer, who oversees labor issues for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.
So far, the efforts have yielded modest gains in some restaurants, but with the fast-food industry beset by 75% annual employee turnover and a patchwork of franchisee owners, some experts say the workers' goal of unions, higher wages and collective bargaining agreements is likely unattainable. "I think that's impossible," says Nelson Lichtenstein, a history professor at the University of California-Santa Barbara.
Others are more sanguine. Rather than taking the traditional path of trying to cobble together unions store by store, Westin says the movement seeks to win disciples across the country. That eventually could allow the strikers to pressure the big restaurant chains to increase food prices and lower franchise fees nationwide, giving franchisees the flexibility to raise wages and forge bargaining agreements, Henry says.
While franchisees often survive on small profit margins, the major fast-food corporations have enjoyed record profits during the recovery. "These multinational companies can more than afford to raise wages," Henry says.
McDonald's says the company "does not determine wages set by our more than 3,000 U.S. franchisees. At the restaurants run by McDonald's USA - less than 10% of the roughly 14,000 - we pay salaries that begin at minimum wage but range up from that figure depending on the job and employee's experience level."
Noting that it provides "affordable, high-quality food," the company added that raising menu prices "would potentially have a negative impact on employment and business growth in our restaurants, as well as on value for our customers."
Angelo Amador, vice president of labor and workforce policy for the National Restaurant Association, says "a lot of jobs could disappear" if wages rose to $15 an hour. Some franchisees, he adds, likely would choose not to expand in regions where labor costs increase.
Other efforts to organize low-wage workers are also sprouting. A group of Wal-Mart workers last year started OUR Wal-Mart and staged protests at about 1,000 stores on Black Friday last year. They're seeking more full-time jobs and consistent schedules, and higher wages, says Wal-Mart employee and group leader Cindy Murray.
Six years ago, Murray says she tried to organize a union backed by the United Food and Commercial Workers but it was quashed by Wal-Mart managers. "More people will feel less afraid if (the group) is made by associates for associates," Murray says, adding that the group has been counseled by the UFCW.
Wal-Mart spokesman Kory Lundberg called OUR Wal-Mart a "front group" for the UFCW, adding it "in no way represents (the company's) 1 million hourly workers."
In New York City, employees at six car washes over the past year have voted to join the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store union - a first for a fragmented city industry that's populated with many immigrant workers. Since they established the unions, rampant employer violations, such as paying below the city's $7.25 minimum wage and not paying overtime wages have ceased, and pay has risen as much as $1 an hour, says Westin, whose New York Communities for Change helped lead the effort by "addressing a lot of different issues" with employees, including housing.
In Southern California, several dozen workers recently staged walkouts at two warehouses over broken equipment and blocked emergency exits, among other issues. Most warehouse employees in the area are not unionized, partly because many are temporary workers, says Elizabeth Brennan of Warehouse Workers United, which coordinated the strikes and is backed by a federation of unions. Several of the employees' demands were met, though only a small portion of took part in the protests, Brennan says. Now, they're tackling wage issues, with several dozen signing a petition seeking a doubling of annual wages to $25,000 a year.
Ricardo Garcia, one of those workers, lives with his parents but helps with household expenses. He says his $8 hourly pay "isn't enough to support my family. Sometimes I don't have enough money to get gas and pay the bills." Warehouse Workers United, he says, "gave us the strength we need to fight for our rights."
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