Fighting Ignorance: How Fight For $15 Critics are Missing the Point
Almost two and a half years ago, low-wage workers from fast food restaurants did something that has never been seen in the labor history of the American service industry. They had the courage to walk off the job. In December 2012, a new group called Fast Food Forward, organized a strike of employees in non-unionized workplaces where thousands of New Yorkers buy meals each day. The strikes quickly resonated with these low-wage workers and spread to cities throughout the nation, demonstrating that low-wages workers were no longer voiceless in the United States. Last Wednesday, the movement continued to expand, with thousands of workers from a multitude of industries joining the struggle, including security workers, adjuncts, and healthcare workers.
This push for a $15 per hour minimum wage is beginning to reverberate throughout the country, morphing into a social justice movement at the vital intersection of race and class, a unification that represents a major idea which was popularized during the Occupy movement: all of our grievances are connected.
Of course, larger protests result in more publicity, including thousands of tweets from activists, workers, and digital media outlets throughout the country.
Naturally, the trolls have also shown up, using the #FightFor15 hashtag and also inadvertently helping it trend. Many members of the right-wing media have also come out against the activists, attacking their character, low-wage work in general, the economic ideas behind raising the wage, and other pro-business concepts which ignore the situation of a majority of the middle and lower class living in this very unequal country. I decided to spend some time reading these articles, in order to highlight their main points and show how they ignore the reality of the lower and middle classes in 2015 America.
One common statement made by opponents to raising the wage are that fast food workers are unskilled so they don’t deserve more money. In their minds, these disadvantaged individuals should simply go to school, build their skill-set, and work as hard as they can to improve their position in life. Here are some examples:
#FightFor15 work just because you’re lazy and unskilled doesn’t mean you are entitled too higher wages get off your asses get a skill and a
— paul binienda (@pjb5977) April 17, 2015
What kind of country do we live in where an unskilled moron can’t fuck my Mcdonalds order up for $15/hr. #FightFor15 — Ben McDonnell (@McBenJammin) April 15, 2015
Naturally, these classy individuals assume that every worker faces the same obstacles that they overcame, ignoring obvious racial, class, and gender barriers which greatly impact employment and education opportunities.
Take for instance, Matt Walsh, blogger for Glen Beck’s website, The Blaze, and apparent “truth-sayer”.
“I’m 28 years old now. I started working when I was about 15. I did hourly, customer service-type stuff at grocery stores, snowball stands and pizza places, never making much more than the bare minimum at any of them. When I was 20 I moved out of the house and got my first job in radio. Starting out as a rock DJ in Delaware, I made $17,000 a year, or about $8 an hour. I lived off of that, earning a few small raises through the years — having to eat fewer meals, buy fewer things, and, God forbid, even forgo cable and Internet access in my apartment — right up to when I got married at 25….It took me over a decade to get here. You think the jobs I had when I was 16 should have provided me with the comfortable living I just established in my late 20s? Frankly, I think you’re delusional.”
His logic is that servers, fry cooks, and cashiers have to struggle as much as he did, since it took him so long to earn what he defines as a comfortable living, Of course, he never considers that maybe he was paid too little as a radio DJ, an example of America’s serious issue with stagnant wages over the past few decades. There are thousands of people like him who harbor this egocentric attitude, thinking that they have worked so much harder than the protesters who are finally standing up against the long hours, fluctuating schedules and multiple jobs that are necessary just to make ends meet. In effect, Matt Walsh and others who think like him are actively oppressing themselves and their peers.
Indeed, what is his advice to those who are finally standing up for dignity and a living wage?
“So here’s my suggestion: Put down the sign. Tuck in your shirt. Plaster a fake smile on your face. Go to work. Flip those burgers and work those cash registers like your life depends on it. Do it like it’s your art, like it’s your passion, like it’s you’re mission on Earth.
Take some pride in what you do, not because it’s fast food, because it’s what you do. Take on extra shifts if you can. Work holidays if you have to. Do whatever it takes. Whatever it takes.”
He completely ignores that the protesters are ALREADY working feverishly to make ends meet, and the idea that costs of living vary throughout the country also seems to escape him. Sure, he made $8 per hour in Delaware, but he is criticizing protesters who are taking the streets in many large, expensive cities, including New York City, where wages are stagnant but the cost of living has skyrocketted 20% in the last few years. Ignorance once again reigns supreme among the right-wing.
Now, many will say, “hold on a second here, these fast food workers are mostly teenagers and middle age workers with no skills, right? They should just go to college.”
#FightFor15 is extremely stupid. Go get a college degree if you want to make more money. Flipping patties will get you nowhere.
— Victoria (@VLoveee96) April 15, 2015
Now, even if we ignore the racial and class disparities of educational access, we have to consider that many workers who are earning the minimum wage have actually obtained a college degree. Almost half a million graduates earn $7.25 per hour or less, which can be seen clearly below:
Now, we should take note that this doesn’t even include workers who earn the minimum wage in states that are above the federal rate, like New York and California. Another article in the U.S. News and World Report supports these findings, adding that the number of college graduates making the minimum wage has gone up 70% in the past decade. My recommendation to these social justice detractors would be to leave their imaginary pedestal for a moment, open their minds and realize the larger issues that are fueling the push for a higher minimum wage.
Sure, the largest union in the United States, SEIU is bankrolling the protests and providing substantial organizational support, and some politicians might indeed be using the issue to further their own interests, as the New York Post suspects. But what is being ignored in these interpretations are that workers are taking the street because they have had enough with their financial situation. Millions of hard workers are struggling to pay for basic needs, and are forced into a position where they rely on billions of dollars in government benefits because employers no longer invest in their labor.
Another common argument of right-wing media pundits are that raising the minimum wage would put strain on businesses who hire these low-wage workers, resulting in a drastic cut-back on labor and operating costs. Forbes contributor Tim Worstall, argues that Mother Jones actually proved that the minimum wage destroys jobs a few weeks before they supported raising the wage, due mainly to this one paragraph from the article:
“Economists with the Institute for Research on Labor and Employment at the University of California-Berkeley have found similar results in studies of the six other cities that have raised their minimum wages in the past decade, and in the 21 states with higher base pay than the federal minimum. Businesses, they found, absorbed the costs through lower job turnover, small price increases, and higher productivity.”
His logic is that higher productivity actually translates to job losses, because as these companies pay more for labor, they will have to asborb the costs by cutting jobs. What are his suggestions for increasing employment and wages, if not by raising the minimum wage?
“Ask the Fed to hold off on raising interest rates for a few more months perhaps, rip down some of the barricades of regulation that stop people creating jobs, possibly even cut the tax burden so that people have more to spend on the products of that labour. Not quite as enjoyable as marching around shouting “Fight For Fifteen” to be sure but a great deal more effective in reaching the end goal of higher wages for the working poor.”
So, if we cut taxes and deregulate the rules holding corporations in check, they will invest in US jobs? It isn’t that simple. Conservatives who use this argument completely ignore the outsourcing trend, where millions of jobs from America are sent to developing nations with even more deplorable working conditions. It is indeed a race to the bottom. Since 2001, outsourcing to China has cost 3.2 MILLION American jobs! According to the book Outsourcing America, written by the American Management Association and reviewed on Global Research, 14 million white-collar jobs are in danger of being outsourced. This number will likely increase as labor markets around the world become more attractive for job growth, due to curtailment of worker rights in third-world countries and the deregulation of international trade through agreements like NAFTA and the TPP, which could be fast-tracked by Congress as early as next week.
While it is true that a higher minimum wage might further spur outsourcing, there is no proof that pro-business policies which already exist in our corporatist system are resulting in companies hiring more employees. In fact, even before the Fight For 15 protests began, corporations like Mcdonald’s already began to invest in automated cash registers. Sure, deregulation and low taxes might make it easier for employers to hire workers, but will these jobs be located within the fifty states?
Even if service industry jobs were created due to these economically libertarian policies, the working conditions will actually begin to resemble their third-world counterparts. We don’t need to accept lower wages and make it even easier for businesses to exploit workers, but rather, work toward a higher wage for ALL OF US, whether we are an office manager making $20/hr or the Mcdonald’s employee who serves them during their lunch break.
Now, to take a step back, we can concede that some businesses actually are having trouble with the rising minimum wage in progressive cities like Seattle and nearby SeaTac. Many companies are adapting by simply adding a living wage surcharge to their prices, usually a small percentage of the bill and less than a few dollars. This is a small cost to pay, considering how much their workers are benefiting from the higher wage. One major possibility of the wage increase in Seattle and other major cities, is that their gains will increase their purchasing power, eventually spurring wage growth for higher-paid workers, which in turn injects even MORE capital back into the economy through consumerism. While I have my own reservations about consumerist culture, citizens need to earn enough money for the system to continually operate. This idea is always missing from conservative editorials which are contrary to the massive popular support behind raising the minimum wage.
While saying this, we should still acknowledge that there are some employers who are indeed shrinking their workforce due to the rapid wage increase in SeaTac. This is happening because businesses operate under the logic that they need to maximize profits, the primary motivator of advanced capitalism. For instance, conservative blog The New American interviewed workers in SeaTac, where the minimum wage was immediately raised to $15 per hour without the gradual implementation which passed in San Francisco and Seattle. This is obviously an issue for area employers, and it’s generally understood that we can’t simply double the wage immediately, due to how the profit-based US economy is structured. Here is how some businesses are adapting:
“Are you happy with a $15 wage?” I asked the full-time cleaning lady.
“It sounds good, but it’s not good,” the woman said.
“Why?” I asked.
“I lost my 401(k), my health insurance, my paid holiday and my vacation,” she responded. “No more free food,” she added.
The hotel used to feed her. Now, she has to bring her own food. Also, no overtime, she said. She used to work extra hours and receive overtime pay.”
This issue is much larger than the minimum wage, detailing how the fundamental relationship between employers and workers has become increasingly exploitative, especially since the job losses of the recent financial crisis. If these right-wing publications are going to focus on how the bottom of the labor pyramid is being penalized for earning a living wage, they also need to strain their necks and look at the very top: How much are the executives who run these companies being paid?
In the midst of the massive fast food strikes last August, an article on Bloomberg Business highlighted the disparity of pay between the average workers and the top CEOs:
“The pay gap between the top chief executive officers and the average workers at their companies is about 331 to 1. Now comes another ratio, courtesy of Demos, a public policy organization in New York: 1,200 to 1. That’s the pay gap between CEOs of fast-food companies and the average fast-food worker in 2012.”
Even more troubling:
“It notes that fast-food CEOs are some of the highest-paid executives in America, with an average compensation of $26.7 million in 2012. Fast-food workers are the lowest-paid. Their average hourly wage is $9.09.”
If these businesses are truly struggling due to higher labor costs, why are the highest paid employees earning more money than ever before?
Indeed, a report from the Economic Policy Institute, studies the economic inequalities which permeate the American economy and their relation to our productivity. Look at this chart:
Hourly compensation for middle-income non-managerial workers was on pace with U.S. productivity for decades. Starting around the Reagan years, the hourly compensation becomes stagnant, while the economy continued to make huge productivity gains. Where is all this increased prosperity going?
the top 1 percent of households have secured a very large share of all of the gains in income—59.9 percent of the gains from 1979–2007, while the top 0.1 percent seized an even more disproportionate share: 36 percent. In comparison, only 8.6 percent of income gains have gone to the bottom 90 percent
Now, take a look at another chart from the EPI report:
Even when considering the compensation by gender, and adding statistics for both average and median hourly compensation, the unequal trend still holds true. Any way that you look at these graphs, the reality is that there is a gap between the value of what we produce, and the paychecks we take home at the end of the week, especially among the middle and lower classes.
To further drive the point home, here were the recommendations of the report:
“It is hard to see how reestablishing a link between productivity and pay can occur without restoring decent and improved labor standards, restoring the minimum wage to a level corresponding to half the average wage (as it was in the late 1960s), and making real the ability of workers to obtain and practice collective bargaining.”
I will provide a final anecdote:
At the Fight For $15 march last Wednesday in New York City, a bystander saw the contingent of healthcare workers who were chanting for higher wages, and spoke with us about how the government had been lying to us. He was from Canada where the customary minimum wage for healthcare workers is $25 per hour, and includes full health benefits. When asked how he felt about the increased labor costs, he admitted that he would prefer not to provide the benefits but that it was simply how the system in Canada worked.
This is exactly the point. Sure, businesses in a capitalist system don’t want to pay higher wages and benefits to employees if they don’t have to. But workers in most industrialized nations are provided with paid sick leave, maternity leave, and free healthcare. Sure, taxes are higher but that is just how the system operates. The biggest issue isn’t that corporations need the freedom and support to hire more employees. The problem is that we absolutely need to wake up, and stop tacitly accepting that this continued exploitation is okay in one of the richest nations in the world. We need to do more than fight for 15, we need to fight for respect!