Fast Food Workers’ Fight for Living Wages

August 29, 2013
Rutgers' School of Management and Labor Relations dean discusses string of industry strikes and employee demands.

By Renée Walker for Rutgers Today

Employees at several major fast food restaurants, including McDonald’s, Wendy’s and Kentucky Fried Chicken, staged walkouts in cities nationwide Thursday demanding higher wages, better working conditions and the right to unionize without retaliation. Expected to be their largest demonstration since a series of strikes began in November, fast food workers — many who earn the federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour — are seeking $15 an hour. With Labor Day nearly upon us, we recognize the social and economic achievements of American workers by taking a closer look at this topic. We sat down with Professor Susan J. Schurman, dean of Rutgers’ School of Management and Labor Relations, to discuss the issues facing workers within the fast food industry.

Rutgers Today: What are the issues that have led to U.S. fast food workers’ recent wave of protests?

Schurman: The basic issue is that, despite working full time, fast food workers can’t make a decent living because their pay is so low — between $8 and $9 an hour. Assuming the standard full-time, 40-hour work week, that’s an annual salary of around $17,500. Not bad if you’re living at home with your parents and not paying rent. In fact, that’s what most people think of when they think of minimum wage jobs. But the facts are different.

Rutgers Today: Can you give us some insight into the workers who are holding these minimum wage jobs?

Schurman: Today the top five employers in the United States pay their workers — some 3.8 million workers, most of whom are out of their teens — close to the minimum wage. This might not be quite so bad if the minimum wage had just kept pace with average wages or inflation over the past few decades, which would make it about $10 an hour — as the Obama administration is proposing. But if it had kept pace with average labor productivity it would be more like $17 an hour. No surprise that these workers are asking for 15 bucks an hour.

Rutgers Today: It is true that some of the protesters once worked in better paying jobs pre-recession but are now working in the fast food industry to survive?

Schurman: There’s no question that the Great Recession of the last five years pushed a lot of people into unemployment and, if they were fortunate enough to find a new job, it was likely at a lower pay. It is also the case that the U.S. Department of Labor predicts that the fastest growth occupations over the next 10 years will be low-wage jobs.

Rutgers Today: Are today’s workers capable of surviving on the current minimum wage level?

Schurman: The real “bottom line” is that workers cannot be self-sufficient on anything close to the minimum wage. This fact was highlighted recently when McDonald’s published a guide intended to help their employees live on the minimum wage. Essentially the “guide” made clear that to survive on a Mickey Dee’s paycheck; their employees would need an additional job. McDonald’s is hardly alone. Our tax dollars already subsidize low-wage employers through their employees’ tax credits, food stamps, Medicare and Medicaid.

Rutgers Today: Among the rights that the protestors are fighting for is the right to unionize. What form should fast food workers’ organizing take? Should they organize store by store?

Schurman: If workers succeed in raising wages and hence the price of a Big Mac at one McDonald’s, customers may just decide to have a Whopper with cheese at Burger King instead. Collective bargaining only works well if it actually takes wages out of competition. Otherwise it simply disadvantages one employer compared to its competitors.

So a better strategy would be to organize all low-wage workers in a particular labor market, a city for example, so employers face a level playing field. That in effect is what a “living wage” campaign seeks to accomplish. Meanwhile, unions need to accept the fact that the structure of the economy is changing, and they need to adapt their strategies and structures to fit this new reality.