Tag Archives: living wage
“More than 1,300 workers from all over the US traveled to the outskirts of Chicago over the weekend for what organizers said was the first nationwide fast food workers convention. This gathering in Elmhurst, Illinois was held on the heels of a snowballing movement that has quickly grown from a spontaneous New York City walkout in November 2012 to one of the most significant American labor organizing efforts in recent years.
They came from California and Connecticut, from Kansas City, Little Rock, and more than 50 cities across the country. Most arrived after long, grueling road journeys, some on yellow school buses, and many brought their children along.
Most of the workers were young, but others were in their 40s and 50s, “career” fast food workers, who have spent decades in the industry. They were overwhelmingly black and Hispanic, but not only. Some were part-time students, a few had college degrees, and many held two or three different fast food jobs at the same time.
All photos by Alice Speri.
They came carrying banners from regional chapters and wearing shirts saying “Can’t survive on $7.25” and “We are worth more.” And they brought two demands: pay of $15 an hour and the right to form a union.
“Look around,” Mya Hill, an organizer from Detroit, told a roaring room packed with fired-up workers on Friday night, as the two-day event kicked off. “This is what a union looks like.”
With most of them making the $7.25 federal minimum wage or just a few dimes more, fast food employees have become one of the most outspoken groups of low-wage workers in the country. While some politicians — including President Obama — have begun debating raising the minimum wage across the board to $10.10, the fast food workers’ bolder demand for $15 has quickly become the rallying cry for a movement that is promising to spread across industries.
“It’s time to stop paying us poverty wages, people are sick of it, everyone in this room is sick of it. We can’t live like this, it’s time for a change,” Shantel Walker, 32, a Brooklyn fast food worker for more than 15 years, told VICE News. “We work for multibillion dollar people. A little dollar, two, three, is nothing to them. They throw away money every day. When someone doesn’t eat their food, they throw it away. That’s basically our money in the garbage can.”
Shantel Walker, a fast food worker from Brooklyn said: ‘It’s time to stop paying us poverty wages, people are sick of it, everyone in this room is sick of it.’
Critics have slammed the $15 an hour demand as utopian, entitled, and economically senseless. But as Americans have started to awaken to the widening inequality in the country, the call for a fair wage has begun to gather traction. “We’re all people,” Walker added. “We have rights.”
Representatives for several fast food chains, including Burger King, Taco Bell, and Wendy’s, did not respond to requests for comment from VICE News on the convention and the workers’ demands.
A spokesperson for McDonald’s did not respond to interview requests or address questions on the impact of the fast food movement and whether its executives are taking the workers’ calls into consideration, but did release a statement.
“McDonald’s and our independent owner-operators share a concern and commitment to the well-being and fair treatment of all people who work in McDonald’s restaurants. McDonald’s and our independent franchisees believe that any minimum wage increase should be implemented over time so that the impact on small and medium business owners is manageable,” spokeswoman Heidi Barker Sa Shekhem said.
“Additionally, we believe that any increase needs to be considered in a broad context, one that considers, for example, the impact of the Affordable Care Act and its definition of ‘full time’ employment, as well as the treatment, from a tax perspective, of investments made by businesses owners.”
But despite some skepticism, the fast food workers’ movement has already reaped some important victories.
In June, Seattle’s city council voted to raise the minimum wage to $15 — a move that is also being debated in San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Chicago. So far, more than 6.7 million workers have seen their wages increase since the fast food workers’ movement started.
And in a decision with potentially massive consequences, the general counsel of the National Labor Relations Board ruled on Tuesday that McDonald’s is the “joint employer” for workers at its franchised stores — meaning the corporation will no longer be able to brush off workers’ complaints (and lawsuits) by putting all the blame on its franchisees. It could also be held responsible for unfair labor practices at its thousands of restaurants, including threatening to or firing workers for organizing.
“Like other fast-food franchisors, McDonald’s is trying to have it both ways when it comes to its relationship with employees working in stores bearing its name,” labor law scholar Michael Fischl said in a statement following the decision. “On the one hand, in order to protect its ‘brand,’ the Mother Ship micromanages virtually every aspect of day-to-day operations, from food preparation to customer service, and everything in between. On the other hand, in order to circumvent the rights of its employees under the National Labor Relations Act, it proclaims that it is ‘shocked, shocked’ that anyone would think it actually exerts such extensive control over its franchised stores,” Fischl continued.
“The General Counsel’s determination to treat McDonald’s as a ‘joint employer’ suggests that going forward the NLRB will be paying more attention to what franchisors are doing than to what they are saying they do.”
Predictably, the ruling outraged critics of organized labor, with Angelo Amador, vice president of labor and workforce policy for the National Restaurant Association, telling the New York Times that the decision “overturns 30 years of established law regarding the franchise model in the United States.”
Tuesday’s ruling came after the Chicago convention, but workers there were already celebrating their first big successes.
“What you are doing right now is the most important workers’ movement in America today,” congressman Keith Ellison — and co-chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus — told workers on Saturday. “Millions of people across the country are looking at what you’re doing here in Chicago.”
Mary Kay Henry
Mary Kay Henry, president of the Service Employees International Union, also praised the workers. The union, which represents its members from a variety of service sectors, backed the convention and offered financial and organizational support — leading some critics to dismiss the event as an attempt to boost union membership.
“The people in this room tonight have changed our country,” Henry told Friday’s boisterous crowd. “When this movement started 21 months ago with the first strike in New York, people thought $15 an hour was a fantasy. They laughed at you. But now, because of your courage and your hard work, it will become a reality.”
Yet despite the wins, fast food employees face an uphill battle.
“It’s going to take a long time. You’re going back to your workplace after this and it’s not gonna happen overnight,” Justin Jones, a 23-year-old organizer from Orlando, told a group of workers in a breakout session. “This is gonna be a fight, it’s gonna be hard.”
“I’m pretty sure they’re gonna make it as tough on us as they can,” he told VICE News later, adding that he has already been turned away from many restaurants — including the world’s largest McDonald’s, in Orlando — for speaking with staff.
But the convention, Jones hopes, will boost workers’ morale and show them they are not in the fight alone.
“We wanted workers to come together and be motivated so when they go back to their cities they can share stories and be like, ‘Hey, this is a real big thing, they’re not playing,'” he said. “It’s a movement and it’s not going anywhere. These guys are serious, they’re for real.”
Birth of a Union
Just 21 months ago, most of the workers who packed into the convention center had no idea they could even protest cuts to their hours and late paychecks without getting fired.
Darrell Roper, 51, who works at a Burger King on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, did some research of his own after an organizer approached him outside the store two years ago. He was surprised to learn that he had a right to organize with other workers, as long as it was not on the clock.
“Most people don’t know that, that’s what it is. They’re weary because they don’t have any information,” he told VICE News, adding that he now talks to other workers — and has come under scrutiny from his managers for doing so. “What I learned gave me the heart and the audacity to want to participate, knowing that my employer can’t hold that against me.”
That sense of newly discovered empowerment was palpable across the convention hall, where many said they would have never dreamed to find themselves just months ago.
“When I first heard about it, I’m not gonna lie, I was kind of skeptical. I was thinking, ‘I’m gonna lose my job, I’m gonna get in trouble,’” Douglesha Nicholson, a 23-year-old Pizza Hut worker from Kansas City, told VICE News. But after the first strike, she was sold.
“It was a big rush of adrenaline, going out and being able to yell without the risk of being fired. Just to let you know ‘Hey, I’m here, this is what I’m demanding, this is what I want,’” Nicholsonsaid. “We’re here to educate other fast food workers who may be skeptical about it, to let them know that we have their back.”
Sitting at a table with workers from Detroit, Brooklyn, and Wisconsin, Nicholson and her partner Marcus Stove, 24, who works at Wendy’s and whatever other odd jobs he is able to find, they compared wages and managers. Nicholson and Stove have four children together — “four and a half,” he joked, as they are expecting their fifth in September — and have long searched for but have never been able to find anything better than their fast food jobs.
“I can’t feed five kids on $7.25,” Stove said. “I’m here for the $15. I’m here to get that money.”
“We all have children,” Nicholson, whose oldest son is seven and wants to be a Pizza Hut driver when he grows up, told the other workers at the table. “I’m here because we are human beings.”
Douglesha Nicholson and Marcus Stove
At other tables, workers from different cities also compared paychecks and traded stories of payments that came weeks late, frying burns, and customers throwing shakes at them through drive-through windows. For the workers, including many leaving their hometowns for the first time, it was a powerful experience.
“Especially in the South, a lot of people are not used to this, they don’t really have knowledge of what a union is, there aren’t a lot of strikes going on,” said Jones, the Orlando organizer. “Here, you are seeing strangers, from other states, races, and belief systems, who have the same issues as you, and it gives you common ground. It’s not just you, it’s other states that all have the same issues. It’s unifying. It’s pretty awesome.”
That was precisely the point of the convention, workers and organizers said: To unite workers and capitalize on the momentum of a movement that has already staged some of the most widespread strikes in recent history, turning the “Fight for $15” chant from a utopian slogan into a reality for some.
But the workers who gathered here also adopted a resolution at the end of the convention that pledged further action — including more strikes, sit-ins, and even soup kitchens outside their stores — “to make sure everyone knows their employees don’t make enough to eat,” one worker suggested.
And many of these employees want a union as much as a raise.
“Right now, people who are working in fast food, their rights are being trampled. The union is not just for job security, it’s to protect your rights,” Roper said. “Without a union, I can’t negotiate with management. It’s their way or no way.”
History of the Movement
The sometimes rowdy convention was heavy on hope and civil rights rhetoric, as workers discussed civil disobedience and watched videos of early workers’ movements. Speaker after speaker reminded those in the room that they were “making history.”
“I’m inspired by what you are doing,” Reverend William Barber II, head of the North CarolinaNAACP, told the workers at the beginning of a long sermon. “You are in a fight to change America and you need to stay in that fight.” At its national convention, last week, the civil rights group voted unanimously to endorse the Fight for $15 campaign.
In fact, this movement has already made history.
It was born almost by accident in New York City, when a couple of hundred workers — “overworked and underpaid” as some of them said — walked off their jobs in November 2012. After that, dozens of people gathered at a Brooklyn Wendy’s to support a young woman who had been fired for protesting. In a domino effect, the strikes started to follow across the country — with a massive, 150-city walk-out in May this year.
Also in May, 101 McDonald’s workers were arrested at a rally outside the company’s corporate headquarters in Oak Brook, Illinois. Many of them were at the Chicago convention, where they got a standing ovation, pledged to do it again, and asked for others to follow.
“I tell you, if every one of us in this room goes to jail for civil disobedience, these corporations are gonna have to listen to us,” one of them told the crowd.
“They’re afraid of this movement, they want to keep their workers subjected,” said Roper. “They don’t want the whole store walking out, but there’s gonna come a time when corporate is gonna have to deal with us, they’re gonna have to give in.”
The workers plan to directly take on the executives of the corporations they work for — an effort that will likely be boosted by Tuesday’s ruling.
“If a CEO gets paid 1,000 more times than the average worker, I believe they can pay you a living wage. If the industry can make billions and billions and billions, I believe they can pay you a living wage,” said Barber.
In her speech, Henry listed the total compensation of fast food CEOs — coming to around 1,200 times the minimum wage that workers make.
“I think these CEOs should come into the store, to see how the stores are actually run,” Kristina Bradley, 25, told VICE News. Bradley was fired from a Pittsburgh Chick-fil-A after joining protests, she said.
“My paycheck says $300. My monthly bus pass costs $146. My rent is $450. If I’m making $300, where is my money?” she asked. “They say there’s welfare out there, you should go get food stamps. You think we want to live off the government? Are you serious? We are working.”
Follow Alice Speri on Twitter: @alicesperi“
“Have you ever seen a congressman snacking on a measly tin of sardines? Or maybe a governor ordering a McChicken off the dollar menu?
In Washington this week that scene was reality for three Democratic politicians who are taking the Live the Wage challenge.
Reps. Tim Ryan and Jan Schakowsky joined former Ohio Gov. Ted Strickland in taking the challenge–and are each living on a budget of $77 for the week–the same amount that a minimum wage worker typically has to spend on food, transportation and day-to-day expenses–after factoring out major costs such as rent and utilities.
A $77-a-week budget certainly doesn’t allow for luxuries.
“I basically had a couple bags of peanuts in the cloakroom–and there was a little fruit in the office that I ate yesterday,” Rep. Ryan told ABC News. “I spent about seven bucks last night on a couple cans of sardines and a bag of crackers from the convenience store up the street.”
The congressman began the “Live the Wage” challenge last week with hopes of bringing attention to the hardships facing minimum wage workers around the nation.
Rep. Jan Schakowsky also began the challenge Thursday–telling ABC News, “It totally changes your perspective. Even the shopping experience–I make a shopping list when I go to the store usually. I think about what I need–what I want–and I put it in the cart. I truthfully rarely think about how much it costs.”
“I’ll walk down the aisle and I’ll see something–you know, that would be great and I throw it in the cart. There’s just none of that when you’re on that kind of budget. There’s no spontaneity whatsoever,” Schakowsky added.
Strickland even took a trip to McDonald’s to try out the fast food chain’s dollar menu. Strickland posted a photograph of his $2.20 meal on Twitter noting that the workers at McDonald’s–(a company known for paying the legal minimum)–”deserve a raise.”
— Ted Strickland (@Ted_Strickland) July 23, 2014
— Ted Strickland (@Ted_Strickland) July 23, 2014
In a Politico op-ed, Strickland explained that he was unable to complete the week-long challenge with a budget of just $77. One particularly difficult aspect the governor discussed was eating a healthy diet while living on a $7.25 hourly wage.
“Because fresh fruits and vegetables are hard to find at a price within a minimum wage budget, I turned to bread, peanut butter, bananas and bologna more than anything else. That was what I could find when I took this budget to the grocery story last Sunday. And that’s why I ate lunch from the McDonald’s dollar menu.”
Schakowsky and Ryan have also taken to social media in recent days to share their message about the challenges facing minimum wage workers.
— Jan Schakowsky (@janschakowsky) July 24, 2014
— Congressman Tim Ryan (@RepTimRyan) July 24, 2014
— Congressman Tim Ryan (@RepTimRyan) July 24, 2014
“There are a lot of people out there who do this for extended periods of time–years–so the idea is to get the message out and raise awareness about some of the difficulties that can happen to you,” Ryan told ABC News.
“We realize it’s not going to be exactly like the challenges that a minimum wage family faces, but the country is talking about the minimum wage right now. And I think that’s exactly what we want to do.”
Schakowsky echoed Rep. Ryan’s sentiments.
“I’m not going to pretend that now I understand what it’s like to live on the minimum wage. I think it’s a taste of it. But for anyone who thinks it’s a gimmick, my suggestion would be–try it,” Schakowsky said.
“You will get a small sense of what it’s like to be constantly thinking about how much you’re spending.”
Ryan and Schakowsky were co-sponsors of the Fair Minimum Wage Act of 2013. Their goal is to increase the federal minimum wage from $7.25 to $10.10.
The push to increase the national minimum has steadily intensified in the past year–as the minimum wage has remained unchanged since 2009.
Last week marked the five-year anniversary since Congress last passed an increase to the national minimum, while the wage for tipped workers has remained at $2.13 an hour since 1991.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the minimum wage doesn’t get you very far. “On average, a single-parent household (One parent, at least one child under 18) will spend $5,457 per year on food, or about $105 per week.”
That’s $28 above what a minimum wage worker has to live on for a week.
When asked about plans for reintroducing minimum wage legislation, Schakowsky was optimistic, but expressed concerns over whether Speaker of the House John Boehner would bring the bill to a vote.
“We’re hoping that we’re going to see another vote on it in the Senate and that there will be more pressure,” Schakowsky said.
“I fully believe that if Speaker Boehner were to call an increase on the minimum wage–that it would pass. It’s a matter of making sure that we just get more Republicans over this recess to ask the speaker to just call the bill.”
Ryan, however, was not as optimistic about the bill’s prospects before the midterm elections.
“I doubt it. The speaker’s holding the line on this. And I hope it’s a rallying call for the 65,000 minimum wage workers in my district–and the million and a half across the country,” Ryan said.
“Let’s increase the minimum wage and get people to work and make sure work pays. That’s ultimately the conversation we want to have.””
“I had $77 to spend on food, transportation, activities and other personal expenses for the week,” the Ohio Democrat and current president of the Center for American Progress Action Fund wrote in Politico magazine. “I didn’t make it.”
“I viewed my bad investment as yet another moral failure.”
That’s the problem with the GOP and conservatives and anyone who views “bad circumstances” as “moral failures.” This article perfectly outlines the poor logical reasoning behind many right-leaning and/or conservative outlooks. It just doesn’t make sense.
More often than not, by pushing for the viewpoints that the GOP advocates for, you are hurting yourself as well as others. He says it himself: “Yet I blamed all of my considerable problems on the government, the only institution that was actively working to alleviate my suffering. I railed against government spending (i.e., raising my own salary). At the same time, the earned income tax credit was the only way I could balance my budget at the end of the year… I felt my own poverty was a moral failure. To support my feelings of inadequacy, every move I made only pushed me deeper into poverty.”
By pushing against the minimum wage raise, for example, you are hurting your own prospects as well as the prospects of others. If wages were raised, money would be pumped into the economy making life better for EVERYONE. Just look at the states that have raised the minimum wage this year, they’re seeing higher employment growth than the states that didn’t.
BY EDWIN LYNGAR
“I was a 20-year-old college dropout with no more than $100 in the bank the day my son was born in 1994. I’d been in the Coast Guard just over six months. Joining the service was my solution to a lot of problems, not the least of which was being married to a pregnant, 19-year-old fellow dropout. We were poor, and my overwhelming response to poverty was a profound shame that drove me into the arms of the people least willing to help — conservatives.
Just before our first baby arrived, my wife and I walked into the social services office near the base where I was stationed in rural North Carolina. “You qualify for WIC and food stamps,” the middle-aged woman said. I don’t know whether she disapproved of us or if all social services workers in the South oozed an understated unpleasantness. We took the Women, Infants, Children vouchers for free peanut butter, cheese and baby formula and got into the food stamp line.
Looking around, I saw no other young servicemen. Coming from the white working class, I’d always been taught that food stamps were for the “others” — failures, drug addicts or immigrants, maybe — not for real Americans like me. I could not bear the stigma, so we walked out before our number was called.
Even though we didn’t take the food stamps, we lived in the warm embrace of the federal government with subsidized housing and utilities, courtesy of Uncle Sam. Yet I blamed all of my considerable problems on the government, the only institution that was actively working to alleviate my suffering. I railed against government spending (i.e., raising my own salary). At the same time, the earned income tax credit was the only way I could balance my budget at the end of the year.
I felt my own poverty was a moral failure. To support my feelings of inadequacy, every move I made only pushed me deeper into poverty. I bought a car and got screwed on the financing. The credit I could get, I overused and was overpriced to start with. My wife couldn’t get or keep a job, and we could not afford reliable day care in any case. I was naive, broke and uneducated but still felt entitled to a middle-class existence.
If you had taken WIC and the EITC away from me, my son would still have eaten, but my life would have been much more miserable. Without government help, I would have had to borrow money from my family more often. I borrowed money from my parents less than a handful of times, but I remember every single instance with a burning shame. To ask for money was to admit defeat, to be a de facto loser.
In my second tour of duty, I grew in rank and my circumstances improved. I voted for George W. Bush. I sent his campaign money, even though I had little to spare. During the Bush v. Gore recount, I grabbed a sign and walked the streets of San Francisco to protest, carrying my toddler on my shoulders. I got emotional, thinking of “freedom.”
Sometime after he took office, I watched Bush speak at an event. He talked of tax cuts. “It’s the people’s money,” he said. By then I was making even better money, but I didn’t care about tax cuts for myself. I was still paying little if any income tax, but I believed in “fairness.” The “death tax” (aka the estate tax) was unfair and rich people paid more taxes so they should get more of a tax break. I ignored my own personal struggles when I made political decisions.
By the financial meltdown of 2008, I was out of the military and living in Reno, Nevada — a state hard hit by the downturn. I voted libertarian that election year, even though the utter failure of the free market was obvious. The financial crisis proved that rich people are no better than me, and in fact, are often inferior to average people. They crash companies, loot pensions and destroy banks, and when they hit a snag, they scream to be rescued by government largess. By contrast, I continued to pay my oversize mortgage for years, even as my home lost more than half its value. I viewed my bad investment as yet another moral failure. When it comes to voting and investing, rich people make calculated decisions, while regular people make “emotional” and “moral” ones. Despite growing self-awareness, I pushed away reality for another election cycle.
In 2010, I couldn’t support my own Tea Party candidate for Senate because Sharron Angle was an obvious lunatic. I instead sent money to the Rand Paul campaign. Immediately the Tea Party-led Congress pushed drastic cuts in government spending that prolonged the economic pain. The jobs crisis in my own city was exacerbated by the needless gutting of government employment. The people who crashed the economy — bankers and business people — screamed about government spending and exploited Tea Party outrage to get their own taxes lowered. Just months after the Tea Party victory, I realized my mistake, but I could only watch as the people I supported inflicted massive, unnecessary pain on the economy through government shutdowns, spending cuts and gleeful cruelty.
I finally “got it.” In 2012, I shunned my self-destructive voting habits and supported Obama. I only wished there were a major party more liberal than the Democrats for whom I could vote. Even as I saw the folly of my own lifelong voting record, many of my friends and family moved further into the Tea Party embrace, even as conservative policies made their lives worse.
I have a close friend on permanent disability. He votes reliably for the most extreme conservative in every election. Although he’s a Nevadan, he lives just across the border in California, because that progressive state provides better social safety nets for its disabled. He always votes for the person most likely to slash the program he depends on daily for his own survival. It’s like clinging to the end of a thin rope and voting for the rope-cutting razor party.
The people who most support the Republicans and the Tea Party carry a secret burden. Many know that they are one medical emergency or broken down car away from ruin, and they blame the government. They vote against their own interests, often hurting themselves in concrete ways, in a vain attempt to deal with their own, misguided shame about being poor. They believe “freedom” is the answer, even though they live a form of wage indenture in a rigged system.
I didn’t become a liberal until I was nearly 40. By the time I came around, I was an educated professional, married to another professional. We’re “making it,” whatever that means these days. I gladly pay taxes now, but this attitude is also rooted in self-interest. I have relatives who are poor, and without government services, I might have to support them. We can all go back to living in clans, like cavemen, or we can build institutions and programs that help people who need it. It seems like a great bargain to me.
I’m angry at my younger self, not for being poor, but for supporting politicians who would have kept me poor if they were able. Despite my personal attempts to destroy the safety net, those benefits helped me. I earned a bachelor’s degree for free courtesy of a federal program, and after my military service I used the GI Bill to get two graduate degrees, all while making ends meet with the earned income tax credit. The GI Bill not only helped me, it also created much of the American middle class after World War II. Conservatives often crow about “supporting the military,” but imagine how much better America would be if the government used just 10 percent of the military budget to pay for universal higher education, rather than saddling 20-year-olds with mortgage-like debt.
Government often fails because the moneyed interests don’t want it to succeed. They hate government and most especially activist government (aka government that does something useful). Their hatred for government is really disdain for Americans, except as consumers or underpaid labor.
Sadly, it took me years — decades — to see the illogic of supporting people who disdain me. But I’m a super-slow learner. I wish I could take the poorest, struggling conservatives and shake them. I would scream that their circumstances or failures or joblessness are not all their fault. They should wise up and vote themselves a break. Rich people vote their self-interest in every single election. Why don’t poor people?”
“…In a referendum last year, voters in SeaTac, Wash. — the community near Seattle that also passed the nation’s highest minimum wage, $15 an hour for some workers — approved a measure that bars employers from hiring additional part-time workers if any of their existing part-timers want more hours. The move was a response to complaints from workers that they were not scheduled for enough hours to support their families. Some San Francisco lawmakers are seeking to enact a similar regulation.
Representative George Miller of California, the senior Democrat on the House Committee on Education and the Workforce, plans to introduce legislation this summer that would require companies to pay their employees for an extra hour if they were summoned to work with less than 24 hours’ notice. He is also proposing a guarantee of four hours’ pay on days when employees are sent home after just a few hours — something that happens in many restaurants and retailers when customer traffic is slow…”