Protesters outside a McDonald’s restaurant in Milwaukee this week summed up, in a few words, what might turn out to be some of the most significant job actions in the past 40 years: “Hold the burgers, hold the fries/Make my wages supersize.”
Milwaukee and Detroit are two of five cities over the past six weeks in which a series of one-day mini-strikes rocked the fast-food industry. Workers demanded wages of $15 an hour and the freedom to join unions without intimidation. Walkouts in Detroit, turning out more than 400 people, may have represented the largest fast-food strike in U.S. history.
These actions, part of an organized nationwide campaign, are not outbursts of radicalism. Rather, they reflect decades-long changes in the U.S. economy that have eroded the standard of living of millions of American workers.
It’s an all too familiar story: The U.S. economy, inexorably altered by outsourcing and technological changes, has shed millions of high-paying manufacturing jobs over the past four decades. Service jobs, mainly in the retail and fast-food sectors, have replaced them, often paying little more than the federal minimum wage, now $7.25 an hour. (Ohio’s minimum wage is $7.85 an hour.) Most growth occupations today are low-wage.
These macroeconomic changes have hastened the decline of unions, which now represent less than 7 percent of the private-sector work force. Even Michigan, the birthplace of the modern factory and private-sector unions, has become a right-to-work state.
It’s no accident that the sites of the first five fast-food strikes included older industrial cities such as Detroit, Milwaukee, Chicago, and St. Louis. They mark the epicenter of a collapsed manufacturing-based economy that once sustained a broad and prosperous middle class.
The new economy, including cheap overseas labor markets, has benefited U.S. consumers with low prices. But consumers are also producers and workers. Cheap clothing and computers, assembled in China or Bangladesh, have come at the cost of depressed wages at home, as jobs that once provided comfortable livings headed overseas.
In the new economy, it makes perfect sense for companies such as McDonald’s to argue that their wages are “competitive.” They are, but therein lies the problem: If paying $8 an hour enables a company to compete successfully for workers, it means a lot of workers are living below the poverty line.
Traditional notions that fast-food restaurants provide mainly entry-level and stepping-stone jobs for high school students and other young people are no longer true. College students employed by McDonald’s or Wendy’s now work beside laid-off factory workers, former machinists, and outsourced telephone operators.
A shrinking middle class undermines the U.S. economy. Enough people no longer earn enough money to buy enough stuff to keep the economic engine roaring. So waves of fast-food strikes — hitting McDonald’s, Burger King, Taco Bell, Wendy’s, Subway, Little Caesars, Popeye’s, and similar franchises — were probably inevitable.
In each city, a coalition of local activists and unions, including the Service Employees International Union, supported the workers.
One-day work stoppages, designed to mobilize broad support, have maximized attention while minimizing the risks of firings.
No one knows whether the mini-strikes will compel fast-food giants to sit down and negotiate with their workers for better pay and union rights. Such changes could improve the lives of American workers as much as raising the federal minimum wage would.
They would, of course, also raise the price of a Big Mac and fries.
But that might be a small enough price to pay for bringing hundreds of thousands of workers back into the economic mainstream.