Fast-food activism

The momentum keeps going

December 9, 2013

Last summer, activists staged walkouts on behalf of fast-food and retail workers. The protest momentum hasn’t died down in the colder weather, either, with news coverage shifting from reporting the walkouts (another round took place in early December) to exploring the underlying trends responsible.

In the New Yorker, Steve Coll discussed the recent voter approvals in various states of higher minimum wages, and placed the current wave of worker activism within a civil-rights timeline:

The grassroots left, which seemed scattered and demoralized after the Occupy movement fizzled, has revived itself this year — with help from union money and professional canvassers — by rallying voters around the argument that anyone who works full time ought not to be at risk of poverty.

Fast-food wage activists are agitating to replicate the $15 minimum wage passed in the city of SeaTac, Washington, on a national level. As Steven Greenhouse noted in the New York Times, such an increase “would mean a 67 percent pay increase in an industry where wages average around $9 an hour.”

The Times editorial board noted that, since low-paid food-service and retail jobs account for much of the nation's recent job growth, workers in those fields are feeling empowered to ask for a bigger piece of the pie. But the board wasn’t optimistic that employers or Congress would want to lend a hand anytime soon.

And over Thanksgiving weekend, a Times profile of one struggling worker made the economics of fast-food poverty distressingly clear: low-wage jobs that used to be done by teenagers or other people looking for pocket money are now going to family breadwinners, the elderly, or both.

As James Surowiecki pointed out this past summer in the New Yorker, a higher minimum wage is no magic bullet. (Writing for Reuters just a few days ago, Zachary Karabell agreed.) And fighting to improve fast-food employment alone, wrote Surowiecki, may be shortsighted:

Over the past three decades, the U.S. economy has done a poor job of creating good middle-class jobs; five of the six fastest-growing job categories today pay less than the median wage. . . . It isn’t enough to make bad jobs better. We need to create better jobs.
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