On Wednesday, fast-food, home health care and low-wage workers nationwide once again stood up for their right to form a union and earn a living, dignified wage of $15 per hour. Adjunct professors joined them to fight for just compensation and a voice on the job.
This movement isn’t about a handout for teens. These are parents with kids, working families, seeking the true value of their labor. According to The Washington Post, the average fast-food worker is 35 years old, a third of all fast-food workers are over 40 and only 12 percent are 20 years old or younger.
Two-thirds of fast-food workers are single mothers. Against their efforts, some economic theorists assert the inane dogma that the value of labor is determined by “supply and demand.” This tautology, that the market value of labor effectively “should be what it is,” obfuscates the truth: fast-food corporations have leveraged the power of their monopolies to artificially deflate wages and thereby increase corporate take home pay.
The purveyor of low wages, namely the fast-food industry, has taken shrewd advantage of a market imperfection. The worker, once at a disadvantage being relatively unaware of the value of her labor, unknowingly allowed her pay to be undercut. But the asymmetries of information that once gave rise to today’s low wages are over.
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No longer can yesterday’s chief executives cheat today’s fast-food and low-wage worker of the true market value of her services, manipulating the labor market’s value for ever-increasing profits. Today’s worker is acutely aware that the value of her work is worth more in Kansas City and throughout our nation.
We are out of the cave, have seen the light, and cannot — will not — go back to poverty wages. Fast-food workers are worth more, and they know it. When a fast-food worker earns $7.65 per hour and McDonald’s CEO Don Thompson made $14 million in 2013, or $9,200 an hour, in reality, the take home pay of CEOs, corporate profits, and little else, set the value of labor.This movement is a declaration that the value of work and of human life will no longer be set by the pay scale and profit margins of this nation’s wealthiest few. Least of all, these workers are asserting that they deserve to be paid at least so much as would allow their families not to starve. The cost of CEOs exploiting this market imperfection by paying poverty wages affects the fiscal well-being of our nation. Arguably, the fast food industry gets away with high profits by refusing to offer benefits to employees.
Instead, taxpayers are forced to pay. An estimated 87 percent of front-line, fast-food workers do not receive any health benefits through their employer, and most are unable to afford health insurance, qualifying for and using programs like Medicaid.
Between 2007 and 2011, fast-food workers and their families received an average of $7 billion per year in public assistance. Of this $7 billion, an average of $3.9 billion came from spending on Medicaid and the Children’s Health Insurance Program. An annual average of $1.04 billion came from food stamps and an additional $1.91 billion from earned income tax credit payments.
These statistics should alarm us all, as Wal-Mart, Yum Brands (KFC, Taco Bell, Pizza Hut), and McDonald’s are now America’s three largest private sector employers. In fact, 44 percent of employment growth over the past four years occurred in lower-wage industries, meaning that our economic recovery has been largely one for low-wage jobs.
Dana Whitman, a fiery, witty woman at age 38, works at a Subway in town, earning $9 an hour. Yet, working as tirelessly as she does, Dana often has to go without meals or utilities to afford baby formula for her dependent grandchild or support for her son with debilitating mental health problems.
This is about Terrance Wise, who at age 35, has worked for Burger King for nine years and in the fast-food industry for 18. He still struggles to make sure his three daughters have enough to eat. When a sudden cut in hours caused him to fall behind in rent last year, he and his family became homeless for several months.
Like Dana, Terrance goes without eating some days to make sure his children are fed and their utilities remain on. Having met Dana and Terrance, I can say that one rarely meets people as hard working. Like the vast majority of fast-food and low-wage workers, despite working tirelessly in the richest nation in our world, Dana and Terrance live in poverty.
As a lawyer and volunteer for the movement, I met a man disgruntled by our efforts asking a common question: How can these fast-food workers really expect $15 an hour when someone “like him,” working in a trade he considered to be more skilled, makes so much less than $15.
I said, “You’re right, you should earn more money, too. You should join us!”
This is the information age, and workers all over have been informed: They are worth more. Fast-food workers are doing something about it. Why aren’t you?
Brian Noland of Kansas City is a lawyer and civic activist who has worked in political campaigns for Mayor Sly James and President Barack Obama, among others. Reach him at email@example.com.