Low-wage America strikes back

Elizabeth Schulte looks at the living and working conditions low-wage workers are rebelling against--and where the struggle will head from here.

Chicago retail workers on the march during a day of walkouts and solidarity actions (Carole Ramsden | SW)Chicago retail workers on the march during a day of walkouts and solidarity actions (Carole Ramsden | SW)

IN A matter of few months, strikes and protests by low-wage workers have rolled through more than a half-dozen U.S. cities--with the promise of more to come, as fast-food and retail workers, from McDonald's to Macy's, give voice to the frustrations of millions of workers who endure low wages, poor working conditions and disrespect on the job.

These are workers--in retail, fast-food and other branches of the service sector--that many unions considered "too hard to organize" in the past. Now, workers themselves are challenging that idea--and in the process, they may play a central role in helping to revitalize the labor movement.

From city to city and workplace to workplace, the solidarity has been almost contagious. In New York City, workers walked out at McDonald's, Wendy's and other fast-food restaurants in late November of last year. Many said they were inspired by the Black Friday walkout by Wal-Mart workers in over 100 cities.

New York saw another strike on April 4--the 45th anniversary of the assassination of Martin Luther King. On April 24, it was Chicago's turn--retail and fast-food workers took part in a one-day walkout that rolled from one low-wage workplace to another and another. And there's more--Milwaukee, St. Louis, Detroit and Washington, D.C.

As Krista Reese, who works in the women's department at Nordstrom Rack in Chicago, said in an interview:

The April 24 strike was really powerful. Members of different communities were there, all coming together. It was really inspirational. It was great to see the support. I think everyone knows someone who works in retail or fast-food, if they don't themselves, and they can relate to how hard we work.

Most people are receptive to the fact that we can't live on minimum wage. And more than that, we need to be respected. Most people I talk to have been disrespected or bullied by their bosses, and have had their wages cut by their employers.

Matthew Camp, who is involved in an organizing drive at Whole Foods with the Workers Organizing Committee of Chicago, talked about the importance of the fight at Wal-Mart:

When OUR WalMart actions happened in November, there was the idea that if it can happen at Wal-Mart, then it can happen here. Fast-forward to New York and Milwaukee, the enthusiasm was outstanding. When I told my coworkers that at McDonald's in Detroit, they tried to bring in scabs and that the scabs walked out, my coworkers all clapped.

The actions have lit a fire, says Camp. "Ever since the walkout in Chicago, my coworkers who have taken part have been transformed," he said. "Now they're really part of the organizing drive. They're in it to win. They're actively trying to convince other people to be part of the organizing drive."

Darius Smith, who is helping organize the low-wage struggle in Chicago, described the growing popularity of this movement:

It shows that this is a movement with people all over the country that are fighting to make a difference. That's the most important thing--to know that Chicago is not alone and that people all around the country are fighting for a change.

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ONE COMMON cause in all these different cities has been the "Fight for 15"--the demand that the minimum wage be raised to an actual living wage of $15 an hour. The point is clear that not only is the minimum wage not enough, but it isn't even close to what's needed to live on.

According to the Labor Department's Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 2012, some 1.6 million hourly workers earned exactly the prevailing federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour.

Even if the federal minimum wage were raised to $9, as proposed by the Obama administration for 2015, it wouldn't be enough to keep people out of poverty. For a full-time worker employed year-round, that comes to around $18,000.

As Shawn Fremstad at the Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR) pointed out, for a worker supporting a family of four, the government's own projected 2015 poverty line is $24,635. In other words, $9 an hour still leaves that family well beneath the poverty line.

If the federal minimum wage had kept up with inflation over the past 40 years, it would now be $10.69. But that's not all. If the minimum wage had kept up with, let's say, the vast increases in productivity that have made U.S. corporations even richer over the same period, the minimum would be far greater. The CEPR's John Schmitt explained:

Between the end of World War II and 1968, the minimum wage tracked average productivity growth fairly closely. Since 1968, however, productivity growth has far outpaced the minimum wage. If the minimum wage had continued to move with average productivity after 1968, it would have reached $21.72 per hour in 2012--a rate well above the average production worker wage.

By any measure, the minimum wage is criminally low. It doesn't come close to providing what workers need to scrape by. As Krista Reese, the Nordstrom Rack worker said:

There's that impression that that retail and fast-food workers are high schools students, and that's not the case. There aren't a lot of good-paying jobs in other fields, so a lot of us are working retail. But that doesn't mean we should be making minimum wage. I still have to afford to pay my bills--rent, food, my student loans.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, only16 percent of fast-food jobs now go to teens--down from 25 percent 10 years ago. More than 42 percent of restaurant and fast-food workers over the age of 25 have at least some college education.

According to the Working Poor Families Project (WPFP), 47.5 million people lived in what the government defined as low-income working families in 2011. More than 23 million of them were children. According to a WPFP study, "This means that nearly one-third of all working families--32 percent--may not have enough money to meet basic needs."

That's why the Fight for 15 centers on the demand for a wage that workers can live on--and insists that every single worker is entitled to it.

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WHAT KIND of company would make its workers survive under these conditions? The answer is a lot of them. They know they can get away with it--and the more they do, the more profits they make.

In fact, corporate profits have been on the rise for several years since the Great Recession bottomed out--even as more workers are expected to work and live in poverty.

The number of people with jobs who nevertheless experience poverty is only growing. According to a 2012 study by the National Employment Law Project, new jobs created after the recession were largely in low-wage industries, such as retail and food preparation. Low-wage jobs grew 2.7 times as fast as mid- and high-wage jobs, according to NELP.

The NELP study found that what its researchers classified as lower-wage occupations were 21 percent of recession losses, but 58 percent of recovery growth, while mid-wage occupations were 60 percent of recession losses, but only 22 percent of recovery growth.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that seven out of the top 10 top-growth occupations over the next decade will be low-wage.

And this squeeze to get more work out of employees for less pay is happening across the board--in the corporate giants like McDonald's that consign their workers to the ranks of the working poor smaller companies that follow the lead of the bigger ones.

Corporate America sure isn't hurting, either. Just look at CEO pay. McDonald's new CEO Don Thompson had his pay package triple last year--from $4.1 million to $13.8 million.

The fact is that the money is there to pay workers fairly. The country's 50 largest employers of low-wage workers--which, of course, includes fast-food giants like McDonald's and retailers like Wal-Mart--have recovered from the recession, and then some. According to NELP, 92 percent were profitable last year, and 78 percent have been profitable for the last three years.

In other words, low wages aren't an unfortunate, unintended outcome of a period of economic crisis. For these employers, they're the secret of success.

As any worker can tell you, low wages go hand in hand with poor working conditions and disrespect on the job.

Sick days are as illusive as unicorns in low-wage workplaces. So are scheduled days off. According to the National Partnership for Women and Families, four in 10 private-sector workers don't have paid sick days. This is, of course, worse for low-wage workers, 80 percent of whom don't have paid sick days.

For many low-wage workers, including those dealing closely with the public at a restaurant or a retail store, this means a choice when they get sick: Either go to work and risk getting sicker and possibly spreading what they've come down with--or miss a crucial day's pay.

Low-wage workers' lives are made all the more miserable by the scheduling practices of their employers. It can be difficult just to get enough hours to make ends meet. This means that low-wage workers are at the mercy of management and whatever hours they decide to give them--often, it means lurching from never getting time off to not getting enough hours.

A survey by the Retail Action Project and the CUNY Murphy Institute found that almost 60 percent of the retail workforce is hired on the basis of part-time, temporary or seasonal/holiday work. Only 17 percent of workers surveyed had a set schedule. In this way, companies are creating a "just-in-time" workforce that is always on call.

Not only does this make it difficult for workers to plan for such demands on their time as child care and school, but it make it impossible to plan around a regular paycheck. At the same time, management can save money by using just a bare-bones number of employees to get the work done.

The report also exposed a shocking disparity in advancement for retail workers along race and gender lines. "Despite the fact that women and people of color make up the majority of the frontline retail workforce, they disproportionately face barriers to career advancement, benefits and wage parity," according to "Discounted Jobs: How Retailers Sell Us Short."

The study found that 54 percent of white workers received raises and promotions after working at least six months, while only 39 percent of Black workers and 28 percent of Latino workers did after the same time period. Some 77 percent of Latinas made under $10 per hour.

Add this to the regular harassment by management that is commonplace at workplaces around the country, and there are more reasons than ever for low-wage retail and fast-food workers to get organized.

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THE STAKES in this fight are high for Corporate America, whose top executives take the priority of maintaining a vulnerable, low-wage workforce seriously. Their agenda goes hand in hand with a larger ruling-class offensive against workers and their living standards.

The overall aim has been to constantly lower the bar of what workers should expect from their employers and their government--taking away rights at work while shredding the social safety net.

This is their vision of the future: Working at McJobs for McWages, while living in McHousing and enduring McHealthCare--all of it so that the richest companies can enjoy healthy profits while the working majority in society scrapes by with the bare minimum.

It goes without saying that the same companies inflicting these conditions on their employees are vicious opponents of unions and labor movements. The very same companies that can't find the money to provide a tiny wage increase think nothing of opening their coffers to attack a union drive.

The stakes are high for workers, too. The fact that workers at a growing number of workplaces are beginning to organize and come together speaks volumes--not just about the raw anger that exists among working people, but the growing understanding that our side needs solidarity if we're going to win.

While the strikes and walkouts seemed to come out of nowhere, every worker inside each workplace can play a key role every day in making this fight stronger. As Matthew Camp said:

These are people from a wide range of backgrounds. Most of us are working poor, but some of us are young, and some of us are old. We work in different places across the city, but to see everybody come forward and display this kind of solidarity and pick up each other's cause is profound.

That's the great thing about Fight for 15--it's not really a question about what I can do in my workplace, but the idea that we won't do well until we all do well together. There are people in Fight for 15 who have worked at McDonald's for decades and still make less than $10 an hour. To have Whole Foods workers, who start at $10, pick up that person's struggle as their own is incredible to me.