Raising the floor


Waves of mini-strikes nationwide that started last November and continued in recent weeks in dozens of U.S. cities have pushed for a minimum wage of $15 an hour for fast-food workers.

These one-day work stoppages — hitting McDonald’s, Burger King, Taco Bell, Wendy’s, Popeye’s, and similar franchises — have raised awareness of the plight of Americans who work at or near the federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour. (Ohio’s minimum wage is $7.85 an hour.)

The best fix is to boost the federal minimum wage, tie future increases to inflation, and raise the guaranteed minimum for tipped workers, which has stayed at a stingy $2.13 an hour for more than 20 years. Proposed legislation that would raise the minimum wage to $10.10 an hour by 2015 would make these overdue changes.

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A hodgepodge of minimum-wage rates tied to specific industries, companies, chains, or locales would leave many workers behind and create unfair disadvantages for certain businesses. By contrast, a uniform increase for all workers would restore some of the losses workers have endured over the past 40 years, as the buying power of the minimum wage has eroded by more than 30 percent.

Congress last raised the federal minimum wage in 2009. Had the minimum wage been adjusted for inflation over the past 40 years, it now would exceed $10 an hour — the bare minimum most researchers say single adults need to support themselves, even in the Midwest.

Nor is there persuasive evidence that raising the minimum wage would cost jobs. By increasing consumer spending, which drives 70 percent of U.S. economic activity, it could even expand jobs.

The average wage for fast-food workers is about $9 an hour, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Many franchises limit workers to part-time jobs without benefits.

A higher minimum wage might raise the price of a Big Mac or Caffè Mocha, but that’s a small price to pay for bringing hundreds of thousands of workers into the economic mainstream. It also doesn’t seem unreasonable, given the more than $5 billion in profits that industry leader McDonald’s reported last year.

Traditional notions that the low-wage, non-union fast-food industry provides 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 next to laid-off factory workers, former machinists, and outsourced telephone operators.

A shrinking middle class undermines the U.S. economy, which needs a broad middle class with disposable income to grease the wheels. The fast-food giants are right when they say they pay competitive wages. Even so, when $8 an hour is a competitive wage, it says a lot about the labor market and how people at the bottom fare in it.

The fast-food mini-strikes started last November in New York City, spreading to cities such as Chicago, Detroit, Milwaukee, and Seattle. The Service Employees International Union, with local labor, faith, and community groups, has helped drive the campaign.

It has pressured fast-food chains to raise their wages and given people hope. Now it’s time for Congress to raise the federal minimum wage for all workers.