From Strike to Movement: The Fight for a $15 Minimum Wage

Tiffani K. Patton | 09.10.2014

McDonalds ff strikeOn Thursday, September 4th, thousands of people from across the nation participated in the largest walkout of fast food workers to date. Largely coordinated by Fast Food Forward, Strike for $15, and Service Employees International Union (SEIU)—with the support of local coalitions—the protesters called for a minimum wage of $15/hour as well as the right to form unions without retaliation. The seventh in a series of one-day strikes since November of 2012, it was the first to feature widespread civil disobedience, as fast food workers and supporters congregated in the streets outside restaurant chains such as McDonald’s, Wendy’s, and Burger King. Hundreds of people, including Congresswoman Gwen Moore (D-Wis.), were arrested.

The seventh in a series of one-day strikes since November of 2012, it was the first to feature widespread civil disobedience.

In solidarity with fast food workers, the SEIU called for home aid workers to participate in the strike. The two million member base of SEIU—which consists of hospital workers, janitors, and home aid workers—has recently begun to recruit fast food workers, as workers across the nation are beginning to demand a living wage. On average, service employees receive almost $300 less per week than the average full-time wage or salary worker.[1. Stafford, Diane. “Fast-food Workers’ Pitch For Higher Pay Turning Into Civil Rights Issue”. Kansas City Star. July 29, 2014, Accessed September 4, 2014. http://www.kansascity.com/news/business/workplace/article814398.html.] According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median annual wage of those in the food services sector is $18,000.[2. Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor. Food Services and Drinking Places, Accessed September 9, 2014. http://www.bls.gov/iag/tgs/iag722.htm#earnings.] This does not constitute a living wage: over 50 percent of fast food workers rely on social programs to make ends meet. [3. Allegretto SA, Doussard M, Graham-Squire D, Jacobs K, Thompson D, and Thompson J. “Fast Food, Poverty Wages: The Public Cost of Low-Wage Jobs in the Fast-Food Industry” UC Berkeley Center for Labor Research and Education. October 2013, Accessed September 9th 2014. http://laborcenter.berkeley.edu/pdf/2013/fast_food_poverty_wages.pdf.] Latoya Caldwell, a full-time employee of Wendy’s, spent part of the year living in a homeless shelter with her four children. She states, “Nobody should work 40 hours a week and find themselves homeless, without enough money to buy them and their kids food, needing public assistance.” [4. Wessler, Seth. “We’re a Movement Now’: Fast Food Workers Strike in Over 150 Cities” NBC News. September 4, 2014, Accessed September 4, 2014. http://www.nbcnews.com/feature/in-plain-sight/were-movement-now-fast-food-workers-strike-150-cities-n195256.] Latoya was one of the hundreds arrested on Thursday. According to public policy group Demos, the average fast food worker’s nominal income has increased by 0.3 percent since 2000, while CEO compensation has quadrupled.[5. Ruetschlin, Carol. “Fast Food Failure: How CEO-to-Worker Pay Disparity Undermines the Industry and the Overall Economy” Demos. April 22, 2014, Accessed September 4, 2014, http://www.demos.org/publication/fast-food-failure-how-ceo-worker-pay-disparity-undermines-industry-and-overall-economy.] Fast food CEOs make approximately 1,200 times more than the average fast food worker.[6. Ruetschlin, “Fast Food Failure” Op Cit.]

Lucha por 15_ff strikeThe series of strikes has shown the general public that the face of the average fast food employee has changed over the past forty years: fast food is no longer an industry consisting mainly of high-school teenagers who work part-time. Seventy percent of those who work in the industry are over the age of 20; over 30 percent have families, and the average worker is responsible for half of her or his family’s income. The average employee today is also more educated, with 79 percent percent holding some college education—up from 48 percent in 1968—while their real wage (adjusted for inflation) has decreased 23 percent since 1968.[7. Mishel, Lawrence. “Low-Wage Workers Have Far More Education Than They Did in 1968, Yet They Make Far Less.” Economic Policy Institute. January 23, 2014, Accessed September 4, 2014. http://www.epi.org/publication/wage-workers-education-1968/.]

According to a recently published report by Food First, Restaurant Opportunities Center and Food Chain Workers’ Alliance, restaurant workers are twice as likely to suffer from food insecurity than the average American. Low wages, variable hours, wage theft, and a lack of benefits make fast food workers highly vulnerable to food insecurity. However, these factors are mitigated when workers are part of a union. Workers who are in unions are less likely to experience food insecurity and wage theft and more likely to receive benefits, according to the report. Giving workers the right to form unions gives them a voice and decreases their chance of being exploited.

The face of the average fast food employee has changed over the past forty years: fast food is no longer an industry consisting mainly of high-school teenagers who work part-time.

While Thursday’s strike is not likely to have an immediate effect on minimum wages or the right to form unions without retaliation, it has drawn public attention to the plight of low-wage restaurant workers, as well as what their political demands are.  On Labor Day, President Obama, who supports raising the federal minimum wage to $10.10/hour, said in regards to the fast food strike: “The only thing more powerful than an idea whose time has come is when millions of people are organizing around an idea whose time has come.”[8. “President Obama Gives Shout Out to Fast Food Workers,” YouTube. Posted by LowPayNotOK, September 2, 2014. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TkxW2VGmgCg.] Previous fast food workers’ strikes have led to the creation of a $15/hour minimum wage in Seattle, and opened up political space in other cities across the country to raising the minimum wage. As such, these strikes have evolved into a veritable movement—a movement for the right of food workers to live a dignified life.

Stay in the loop with Food First!

Get our independent analysis, research, and other publications you care about to your inbox for free!

Sign up for news and updates