Charlotte fast-food employees today will join workers in more than 50 cities in walking off their jobs to demand $15 an hour and the right to form a union without retaliation. These protests are not your typical strike. They represent a new and resurgent labor movement – one comprised of low-wage workers who are increasingly marginalized in today’s economy. They deserve our support.
Leading up to Labor Day, nationwide strikes by workers in the fast-food and retail industries are the largest in this country’s history. Truck drivers and even employees at food concessions in federal buildings have engaged in strikes protesting the conduct of their employers. What has brought these workers to the point of very public protest after working silently for years in kitchens, aisles, cabs, and checkout lines?
They are following in the footsteps of activist employees from the past several centuries who joined together to confront powerful companies in an effort to improve working conditions. Like workers who toiled in the factories and mines in the 19th and 20th centuries, the retail and fast food employees of the 21st century work for low wages with few, if any, benefits, generating millions in profits for large corporations.
Contrary to the stereotype, most of these workers are adults and many support families. The average age of a fast food worker is 28. While these jobs are frequently called entry level, the reality is that upward mobility is limited. To add to the challenge of making a living, unpredictable shift scheduling makes it difficult to work a second job or to obtain quality child care.
According to MIT, the typical wage for food preparation and service workers in Charlotte workers is $8.69 per hour. A living wage for one adult in Charlotte is $10.02 per hour and an adult with one child needs $19.68 per hour just to afford the basics of housing, food, transportation and medical care.
And despite significant increases in productivity, real wages for workers have not risen in many years. The stagnant economy is trapping more and more people in jobs with no future and no possibility to escape poverty.
These workers, seeing no way out of their hand-to-mouth existence despite their hard work, are fighting back. For this, we should all be grateful. Low wage workers cost taxpayers, because many depend on public benefits to survive. The demand for public benefits increases with low wage jobs, while the demand for consumer goods decreases, since low wage workers have limited purchasing power.
While some argue that low wage workers chose their lot and should accept it, our economy needs workers at all levels. Everyone willing and able to work should have the opportunity to earn enough to support a family. These workers should be able to participate in the economy, using their purchasing power to generate demand for additional workers.
Labor Day was established to honor working people in the past who struggled to obtain an eight-hour day, fair wages and benefits, and safe working conditions. This Labor Day, let’s remember those workers, while honoring their courageous striking heirs as well. Thank a fast food or retail worker for their dedication. Encourage them to speak out for their rights. Tell the government not to support contractors who fail to comply with minimum wage and overtime laws. And ask corporate America to do the right thing for the country by paying their workers a living wage. Doing so will benefit us all.
Hodges is a law professor at the University of Richmond.
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