We’re sick of poverty wages

April 15, 2014

Michael Brown reports from Los Angeles on a protest by low-wage workers.

JOSÉ PAZ, a worker at McDonald's and member of the Fight for 15 Los Angeles Organizing Committee, told a crowd of more than 50 supporters that he couldn't initially "look his manager in the eye" during a clergy-led delegation inside of the restaurant, where a letter was presented asking among other things that the restaurant's employer not retaliate against union-organizing efforts.

Paz's trepidation and fear while confronting his manager was eased, he said, as he and several other co-workers from the South LA restaurant, located two blocks from the University of Southern California campus, were supported at the April 3 protest by local Burger King workers, progressive clergymen, members of the Brown Berets, as well as representatives from the Black Workers Center and Koreatown Immigrant Workers Alliance.

A street theater skit, which featured actors dressed as Ronald McDonald and the Hamburglar, drew laughter and cheers from those attending and honks from passing motorists--especially when the gathered McDonald's workers staged a mock arrest of both characters for the crime of wage theft.

Fight for 15 activists in Los Angeles focus their anger at McDonald's
Fight for 15 activists in Los Angeles focus their anger at McDonald's (Michael Brown | SW)

Kidding aside, wage theft--particularly by McDonald's--is no laughing matter. In the past two months alone, lawsuits filed in three states against McDonald's alleging wage theft and other penalties to employees have tarnished the finely coiffed image of the "golden arches."

Workers in California, New York and Michigan filed suits against the franchise and individual franchise owners citing wage theft. The alleged theft includes workers being forced to work off the clock, denial of overtime and denial of rest breaks. In one of the more egregious cases, McDonald's in New York had a suit filed against it for violating the state's minimum wage laws by mandating employees buy their own uniforms, a considerable cost to workers just scraping by on starvation wages.

Also, in February, a franchise in Pennsylvania was ordered by the U.S. Labor Department to pay $211,000 in back wages to 291 employees, while an owner of seven McDonald's franchises in New York paid out a $500,000 settlement for underpaying employees.

Certainly, workers at the South L.A. restaurant are feeling the brunt of the company's pattern of wage theft and felt compelled to do something about it, born out by the fact that nine of them signed a flier which read at the top: "END WAGE THEFT NOW!"

"Today, we're here to tell McDonald's we're sick of [its] theft, disrespect, and [its] poverty wages," said Samuel Quintero, a member of the Organizing Committee.

QUINTERO ALSO detailed personal experiences he's suffered, such as being denied 10-minute breaks and having to rent out his room so that his family could pay the month's rent and "afford our bare necessities."

McDonald's paltry wages aren't due to a lack of revenue. In fact, CEO Don Thompson was paid nearly $14 million in 2012. Last year, as well, workers generated $28 billion in sales, leaving the company with $5.5 billion in profits.

The fast food industry additionally benefits by paying employees such substandard wages that many workers are forced to seek public assistance, including, ironically, food stamps--thereby passing along costs that the companies might otherwise have to pay to the public.

According to a study released last year by the National Employment Law Project titled Super-Sizing Public Costs, the fast food industry costs American taxpayers almost $7 billion annually when its employees are forced to use public-assistance programs. McDonald's employees account for the biggest portion at $1.2 billion. That should come as no surprise considering that McDonald's, like its fellow low-wage twin Wal-Mart, actively encourages workers to apply for food stamps.

Such low-wage service jobs, even when supplemented with public assistance, don't go far, especially in places with a high cost of living like Los Angeles. The situation is exacerbated with the continued rise of poverty in L.A. county despite the economic "recovery."

Synika Smith, a worker at Burger King who attended the protest, said the outpouring of community support given to the Fight for 15 efforts has been a positive. However, she added that just $15 an hour isn't enough. "What I really want is a union," Smith said. "Because when you have that, there's a guarantee, there's a contract. Managers can't just say, 'Payroll is high, so hours have to be cut.'"

She continued, "It's hard to plan out bills and other expenses when you don't even know if you're guaranteed enough hours per pay period."

Smith's sentiments were echoed by Chicago-based activist and Whole Foods worker Trish Kahle in a recent article: "In order to lead meaningful lives we're entitled to, we need paid sick days, vacation days and fair attendance policies. And finally, we know that this fight is so much bigger than $15 an hour. This is a fight over power in our workplaces, in our cities and around the world."

Indeed. Higher wages, although they would be welcome, wouldn't alleviate all of the problems in top-down, undemocratic workplaces like McDonald's, where managers are free to punish and fire employees at-will. Winning union representation through struggle is one way workers can begin to wrestle away leverage from management, which then can be parlayed into more just wages and improved working conditions.

Further Reading

From the archives