August 30, 2013

Fast food workers strike actions demand $15/h, expose poverty wages crisis

Fast food and retail workers in 60 or more cities, towns and suburbs and reportedly 1000 stores across the United States rallied in strike actions and job site disruptions all-day yesterday starting as early as 6am. The strikes marked the largest protests so far in a 10-month campaign that is gaining momentum after it began with 200 workers striking at a restaurant in New York last November, and spread to Detroit, Chicago, LA and elsewhere this summer.

The walkouts and protest actions, which can be followed on twitter via the tag #825strike, also struck at a number of cities in the notoriously anti-union and low-wage southern US. The organizers, a coalition of fast food workers, labour, community and church groups -- some of whom are mobilizing under the banner of 'Fast Food Forward' -- called for the right to organize a union as well as a boost in the minimum wage to $15 an hour.

The fast food worker's mobilization is likely the largest in US history.

While most of the strike actions and protests occurred at fast food chain stores, retail outlets like Macy's, Sears and Victoria's Secret also saw protests.  In a number of cities, entire businesses were effectively shut-down for the day.  More protests are planned later this year, according to the Service Employees International Union, SEIU.

Billions in profit

Commentators said the strikes showed "great anger" among people about income inequality in the US. This is a "march on corporate America" one organizer was quoted as saying on the news site

Literally millions of US fast food and retail workers are struggling to get by on just ''starvation wages,'' according to the protest organizers, who pointed to the fact that the top eight US fast-food chains — McDonald’s, Wendy’s, Burger King, Taco Bell, KFC, Pizza Hut, Domino’s and Papa John’s — made a gargantuan $7.35 billion in profit last year, while most of their employees, however, took less than $11,300.

Los Angeles fast food workers, for example, make a median wage of $9 an hour or just $11,232 annually according to studies. Factoring in living costs, an adult with one child would need need to make $23.53 an hour -- full-time -- to afford the basics in Los Angeles, according to an online living-wage calculator by MIT

"[M]ore than 25% of [fast food workers] are parents who can’t afford school supplies if they have to buy school shoes," said an open letter to fast food companies from the group  A significant number of fast food workers are African America, Latino, or from immigrant communities.

US President Barack Obama is floating the idea of a federal minimum wage of at least $9 an hour, while the Congressional Democrats are discussing a $10.10 proposal. Current US federal minimum wage is set at $7.25.

Raise or just keeping pace?

Some commentators note that the workers are, arguably, not calling for a raise but to stop going backwards on the pay scale. 

"If the minimum wage had kept pace with inflation over the past 50 years, it would be about $10 an hour today; if it had kept pace with the growth in average labor productivity, it would be about $17 an hour," the New York Times noted in an August 7th editorial.

"Americans are increasingly unable to make a living at their jobs. They work harder and are paid less than workers in other advanced countries," the NYT said, adding that "low-paid work in America is lower paid today than at any time in modern memory."

Feeling of resistance

Some news reports said the actions had an "Occupy atmosphere," while the LA Times described "fast-food workers and supporters" outside a South Los Angeles Burger King at 6 a.m., "chanting their demand for a $15-an-hour minimum wage" and "holding signs with slogans such as 'Burgers and Lies,' 'Yo Quiero $15,' and 'Lovin' a Living Wage'" 

The workers "began moving into formation before sunrise, headlights speeding by on the 110 Freeway behind the restaurant in the Brodway-Manchester neighborhood. As the sun slowly rose and honks from passing passing cars increased, the employees and protest organizers from the Service Employees International Union, many decked out in “Fight For 15” T-shirts, snaked around the corner at Broadway and Century Boulevard."

The Young Communist League of Canada expressed its full support for the demonstrations and actions in the US, noting that these kinds of actions were needed in the fightback for a higher minimum wage across Canada. The YCL Canada calls for a $19 an hour Federal minimum wage.

Some fast food facts:

What are they demanding:   $15 (U.S.) an hour

Current US federal minimum wage:   $7.25

What that is as an annual salary:   less than $15,000 a year

Median wage for US fast-food workers:  $8.94 per hour

Percent of fast-food workers over 20:  70 - 88 % (estimates vary)

Average age of US fast-food workers: 35

In their own words:

“Sometimes my phone will go out because that isn’t a priority. Giving my kids a roof over their heads is.”  -- Sharise Stitt, Taco Bell worker, Detroit

"They work harder than the billionaires in this city." -- Ryan Carter, New York

"I know I'm risking my job, but it's my right to fight for what I deserve." -- Julio Wilson, Little Caesars worker in Raleigh North Carolina

"The bottom line is we are doing this to let the corporations know we want $15 an hour, better working conditions — and we want to be treated fairly. " -- Rev. W.J. Rideout, All God's People Church, Detroit

"These strikes and these movements, they're not just for us. They're for another generation of those who won't be able to survive in this economy."  -- Tamara Green, Burger King worker in Brooklyn, New York

[This was] "theatre orchestrated by organised labor, for organized labour [...] Retail and restaurant jobs are good jobs, held by millions of working men and women, who are proud of what they do for their customers and the communities they serve across America. The planned walkout is the result of a multi-year effort by big labor to diminish and disparage these hard-working Americans by attacking the companies they work for."  -- The National Retail Federation of America.

With files from the Associated Press, Globe and Mail, The Guardian, Vancouver Sun, Huffington Post, Toronto Star, LA Times, USA Today, Peoples World, and the New York Times

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