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Raising McWages

Aug. 7, 2013
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The unspoken message to those forced to work for the minimum wage in this country is that their employers would really like to pay them even less, but it would be against the law.

A friend of mine says he’s come up with the perfect definition of corporate profits: It’s the difference between what workers earn and what they are paid.

The battle over how little workers can be paid in America is finally starting to heat up as more and more workers find the only jobs available to them are those that pay the very least.

The one-day strikes at fast food restaurants in Milwaukee and other cities across the country are just the beginning.

That’s because they come at a time of growing awareness that the American economy is becoming horribly disfigured by the grossly unequal distribution of its rewards.

Wages for the lowest paid and even those who used to be considered middle class have stagnated or fallen over the past 40 years while the pay for the top 0.1%—the richest thousandth of Americans—saw their real incomes rise more than 400%.

States like Wisconsin under Republican Gov. Scott Walker make income inequality even worse by passing laws to remove the power of unions to do anything to protect the wages and benefits of workers.  

The open warfare on workers began by crippling public employee unions, but it’s not difficult to see the ultimate goal. In fact, more and more workers are getting to see it first hand.   

By cutting wages, benefits and jobs for so many, Walker has pushed more and more once-middle-class Wisconsin workers into low-paying service jobs.

Workers new to life at the bottom are appalled by the miserable pay, humiliating treatment and lack of rights that have always existed for the voiceless working underclass.

It’s pretty hard to argue that people who work hard everyday at full-time jobs shouldn’t be paid enough to get out of poverty and support their families.

Republican Gov. Tommy Thompson forced single mothers to go to work under welfare reform to slash the cost of government programs providing food, health care and shelter for poor families.

Well, guess what? Most of them went to work in minimum wage jobs without any benefits, remain in poverty and still rely on government programs for health care, housing and food for themselves and their children.

By the way, a large percentage of minimum wage workers are in food preparation and one of the benefits they don’t get is sick leave. Think about those people in the kitchen who had to come to work sick the next time you eat in a restaurant.


Workers Know Injustice When They See It

It may be hard to argue against livable wages for full-time workers, but that has never stopped the restaurant industry. It’s always one of the loudest voices against raising the minimum wage.

Their arguments range from the disingenuous to the ridiculous.

Restaurants have razor-thin profit margins and paying decent wages would force many of them to close. Independent restaurants close all the time, but fast food restaurants, the strongest opponents of decent pay, seldom do.

And, boy, do those tiny, little profits add up. Last year, McDonald’s total profits were $5.3 billion. A McDonald’s near UW-Milwaukee actually did close a number of years ago. I’m not sure it’s the only one in the history of the world, but it could be.

Fast food chains like to pretend their jobs aren’t real jobs anyway, which is why they don’t pay real money. These are just kind of starter jobs to give teenagers whose voices are changing their first real experience with kind of working.

Anyone who walks into fast food restaurants to be greeted and served by a precision-smiling army of junk food jockeys recognizes real, onerous work when he sees it.

And the workers are hardly all pubescent. The average age of a fast food worker is 28, and two-thirds are women, which also may explain the lousy pay.

But perhaps the most absurd argument for keeping fast food wages too low to live on is that it provides a powerful incentive to drive good employees out the door into bigger and better jobs.

It would be a lot more humane to pay a livable wage, but just keep yelling and throwing French fries at your best workers.

A side benefit of the enormous expansion of poorly paid service jobs is the growing activism of low-wage workers who know injustice when they experience it.

These are exactly the sort of exploited workers who originally organized labor unions to try to improve wages, hours and working conditions. Which, actually, is still a protected legal right for American workers.

If unions ever hope to regain their power as strong advocates for decent treatment and fair wages for workers, where better to start than on behalf of the workers who need it most?


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