THE BLOG

A Game-Changing Moment for Fast-Food Workers

05/12/2015 12:22 pm ET | Updated May 12, 2016
ASSOCIATED PRESS

Two and half years ago, 200 fast-food workers went on strike in New York City demanding $15 an hour and union rights. Most people, including many in the labor movement, thought the cooks and cashiers from restaurants like McDonald's, Burger King and Wendy's had no chance to win. But nine strikes later, and having sparked a global movement for higher pay, $15 doesn't seem so crazy anymore.

In perhaps the strongest sign of how far their $15 movement has come, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced a plan to raise pay for fast-food workers statewide, setting up a potentially historic victory that could ripple across the country.

The governor's announcement shows that when workers stick together and speak out, their voices are heard. By joining together and going on strike, New York's fast-food cooks and cashiers rewired how everyday Americans and elected officials think about wages. They turned $15 from a far-fetched goal to a new baseline for workers nationwide.

Workers like Flavia Cabral, a 53-year-old mother of two from the Bronx who works at McDonald's, have been at the center of the transformation. Flavia has gone on strike, spoken out for $15 and union rights and even traveled to Denmark to meet with McDonald's workers there who, by standing up for higher pay, now make $21 an hour. Flavia, meanwhile, struggles to afford medicine for her husband and school supplies for her 15-year-old daughter. Despite working two jobs, she barely covers her bills and her dreams of a better life for her children seem unattainable. "I want my girls to go to college," she says; "but I know that they won't because I can't pay."

On just $8.75 an hour, Flavia is forced to rely on food stamps to feed her family. This is business as usual in the fast-food industry, where 52 percent of fast-food workers depend on some form of public assistance to survive, costing taxpayers $7 billion a year. By paying employees minimum wage or just above it, multi-billion dollar corporations like McDonald's and Burger King essentially outsource their labor costs to taxpayers. The bill for taxpayers in New York is amongst the highest per capita in the country, at $700 million every year.

While the public helps eat the cost of low wages paid by fast-food companies, their executives are paid handsomely. The disparity between CEO and worker pay in the industry--more than 1,000 to 1--is far greater than any other industry. One reason for the striking pay gap is the prevalence in the industry of share buybacks, which line the pockets of executives and short-term investors at the expense of investment in workers or the companies themselves.

McDonald's, for one, spent $2.95 billion on buybacks each year, on average, over the past decade, representing 67% of net income. The company announced plans this week to return $8-$9 billion to shareholders this year alone. McDonald's -- and the rest of us -- would be better off if the company invested that money in its underpaid workforce.

In New York, for example, paying workers $15 an hour is actually not as radical as it might sound. A living wage for a single parent with one child in New York City is $24.69, according to researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Even upstate in Albany, it's $21.08.

As the Fight for $15 has spread to every corner of the United States and around the globe, it has gained unstoppable political momentum. Seattle, SeaTac and San Francisco adopted $15 minimum wages, while in Chicago, Mayor Rahm Emmanuel passed $13. Democrats in Congress are now pushing a $12 federal minimum wage, and the urgent need to raise wages is emerging as a flashpoint in the 2016 presidential race. Fifteen dollars an hour has become a winning political issue and fast-food workers marching in the streets made it happen.

Now in New York, where the Fight for $15 started, there's an opportunity for a historic victory. Gov. Cuomo's leadership opens the way to raise fast-food pay in our nation's most populous city and across the state to $15, re-balancing our economy, and strengthening communities.

When workers win $15 in New York, all workers will win, not just fast-food workers in New York. Once fast-food workers are paid $15, workers in retail, home care and other industries will be even more energized to escalate their fights for higher pay. Plus, fast-food workers winning $15 will make it easier for workers in retail, home care and other industries to win raises in their workplaces. It will have a catalytic effect that will show the whole country how collective action--joining together and standing up for a higher paycheck - is the path to a better life.

Two and a half years after 200 fast-food workers walked off the job in New York City, nobody is laughing at their calls for $15 an hour. In fact, everywhere you look, including, now, in Albany, people are joining in.

Mary Kay Henry is the international president of the Service Employees International Union.