Fast food workers strike for a living wage to support their families

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Employees and supporters demonstrate outside of a Wendy's fast-food restaurant to demand higher pay and the right to form a union on July 29, 2013 in New York City. Across the country thousands of low-wage workers are expected to walk off their jobs Monday at fast food establishments in seven U.S. cities. Workers at KFC, Wendy's, Burger King, McDonald's and other restaurants are calling for a living wage of $15 an hour and the right to form a union without retaliation. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

Employees and supporters demonstrate outside of a Wendy's fast-food restaurant to demand higher pay and the right to form a union on July 29, 2013 in New York City. Across the country thousands of low-wage workers are expected to walk off their jobs Monday at fast food establishments in seven U.S. cities. Workers at KFC, Wendy's, Burger King, McDonald's and other restaurants are calling for a living wage of $15 an hour and the right to form a union without retaliation. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

On this Labor Day, the nation is witnessing a new movement to improve the living standards of fast food workers, who are fighting for a livable wage to feed their families.

On August 29—the day after the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington—fast food workers around the U.S. staged a walkout in hundreds of stores in 50 cities, their largest protest ever.  This comes a month after a four-day wave of strikes in which workers in seven cities walked off the job, reflecting a trend in recent years of activity in the growing retail and service industry.

With support from the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), these strikers are demanding $15 an hour, a raise from the current minimum wage of $7.25, and the right to form unions without threats from their employer.  The Obama administration has proposed a minimum wage hike to $9 per hour.  For the labor unions, this recent campaign provides the opportunity to raise the floor for the lowest of wages in the nation.  These low-paying jobs are replacing the higher-skilled, higher-paying positions lost with the decline in manufacturing and the gutting of the American labor market.

Moreover, the fast food strikes provide an opportunity to debunk the myth that the typical fast food worker is a teenager pursuing his or her first afterschool job, or an elderly person seeking some supplemental income.  In an economy where the bottom has fallen out for millions of working Americans— with stagnating wages and fewer well-paying job opportunities — the fast food industry has witnessed a rapid growth in adult workers, who are attempting to raise families working in these part-time jobs, with poverty wages.

According to a study released in July by the National Employment Law Project (NELP), the average wage for frontline fast food workers is $8.94 per hour, among the lowest in the U.S. economy.  Front-line jobs, including non-managerial positions such as cashiers, cooks and delivery staff, account for 89.1 percent of the fast food industry, while first-line supervisors with a median hourly wage of $13.06 hold 8.7 percent of the jobs.  And franchise owners make up — on average — one percent of fast food jobholders, with there being a franchise owner for every 99 employees.

At Papa John’s Pizza, there is one franchise owner for every 141 workers, while at Burger King, there is a franchisee for every 198 employees.  At Wendy’s there is a franchise owner for every 260 employees, and at McDonald’s, there is a franchise owner for every 293 workers.

In all, managerial, professional and technical positions are a mere 2.2 percent of jobs in the fast food industry, in contrast to 31.1 percent of jobs in the U.S. economy.  NELP emphasizes the statistics counter the “mobility myth” common in the fast food industry— that these low wage jobs provide a ladder of success and access to the “American Dream” through advancement to the managerial ranks and franchisee opportunities.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the low $9 per hour earned by the nation’s 2.9 million food preparation and serving workers has been on the decline in value compared to 1982-1984 dollars. In contrast, production and non-supervisory workers earn $20.14, and non-farm workers earn an average of $23.98.

Moreover, the Economic Policy Institute (EPI) reported that food preparation and serving occupations have the highest proportion of workers at or above the poverty level with 73.6 percent, or nearly three-quarters, as of 2010.  The 2010 median salary for a fast food worker—$18,130—was at the federal poverty level for a family of three.

Poverty-wage workers, including union workers, are more likely to be women, young and of color in the new service economy.  According to EPI, one-quarter of Americans work in low-paying jobs, which is at or below the federal poverty level for a family of four, which was $23,005 per year in 2011.  White women are less than half the workforce, but make up 55.1 percent of poverty-wage workers.  Workers between 18 and 25 were 15.5 percent of the workforce in 2011, but were 35.5 percent of poverty-wage workers.

Blacks and Latinos are overrepresented among low-wage workers.  African-Americans were 11 percent of the workforce in 2011, yet made up 14.1 percent of all poverty-wage workers.  Similarly, Hispanics constituted 15.3 percent of the workforce in 2011, but 23.6 percent of poverty-wage workers.  Whites are underrepresented among the poverty-wage workforce, accounting for 66.9 percent of all workers, but only 55.9 percent of all poverty-wage workers.

Meanwhile, in 2011, only 31.5 percent of poverty-wage workers lived in households with greater than $50,000 in family income, while 31 percent lived in households with less than $25,000 in family income.  These figures counter the notion that many fast-food workers live in high-income households, such as a teenager with well-to-do parents, or an adult with a higher-earning spouse.

In addition, there are educational disparities among-low wage workers.  For example, workers with a high school diploma or less were 36.4 percent of the total workforce in 2011, but were also 54.3 percent percent of low-wage workers.  Yet, workers with some college education are overrepresented as well, accounting for 19.7 percent of the national workforce, but 26.4 percent of poverty-wage workers.

The workers in the $200 billion a year fast food industry are dependent on food stamps at twice the rate of the rest of the U.S. workforce, and rely on other government programs such as Medicaid just to make ends meet.  This comes as Don Thompson, the CEO of McDonald’s, has seen his compensation more than triple to $13.75 million.

Meanwhile, the Low Pay Is Not OK movement, as the fast-food workers’ campaign is called, is helping to breathe new life and activism into a moribund labor movement, which stands at a 97-year low of 11.3 percent of all U.S. workers, down from a high of 35 percent participation in the 1950s.

Follow David A. Love on Twitter at @davidalove