THE BLOG
09/06/2013 09:04 am ET | Updated Nov 06, 2013

Fast Food Workers Seek Justice, Respect and a Living Wage to Lift Them Out of Poverty

In these days following the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s iconic "I have dream..." speech, it is fitting that we reflect on this remarkable man and his enduring legacy, as well as the battles won and lost since that incredible day and what remains to be accomplished to make us a more perfect Union. In his commemorative address last Wednesday - on the very spot in front of the Lincoln Memorial where MLK delivered his historic speech in 1963 - President Obama said that the March continues as we seek to conclude the unfinished business that brought the marchers to Washington that day, and which still challenges our nation.

Mr. Obama spoke eloquently of those everyday Americans who have contributed so much to the growth and progress of America, working at a multitude of jobs, yet all helping to make our society greater day by day. We will never forget Dr. King talking about his dream that one day his four little children would not be judged by their skin color, but by the content of their character. We are moving closer, but still have a way to go.

There has been progress, though, starting soon after Dr. King's historic speech with the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act in 1965. There were also laws passed that gave us Medicare, Medicaid and the food stamp program as part of President Lyndon Johnson's "war on poverty," which began in 1964, only to be sidetracked soon after by a war in Vietnam. And let us not forget the jobs programs and infrastructure building on a grand scale nationally that moved our country forward and provided thousands of jobs under Franklin D. Roosevelt, as well as the introduction of unemployment insurance and Social Security under his leadership. These visionaries - FDR, MLK, LBJ - inspired America to move mountains in the name of progress. Where are such leaders today? The verdict is still out on Mr. Obama, and we are beginning to wonder if Obamacare will be his lone signature achievement. Otherwise, the only "vision" we see these days comes from those in the far right wing who would destroy these monumental achievements and roll back progress in the name of prosperity for the privileged few.

Dr. King was not only advocating for justice, equality and jobs that day in 1963, he was also seeking to raise the minimum wage to $2.00 an hour, which in today's dollars would be roughly $15.00 an hour, adjusted for inflation. Today, fast food workers are also demanding $15.00 per hour and the right to join a union, issues that were front and center in their national strike on August 29th, the day after President Obama's speech. This walkout was one of the largest strikes in our nation's history, targeting over fifty cities and affecting nearly 1,000 national fast food restaurants. In some cities, Americans in other low paying jobs joined the walkouts, including retail workers from Macy's, Walmart, Sears, Victoria's Secret, Walgreen's, as well as coffee baristas in Seattle, Washington.

Last Thursday's action was the latest in a series of rallies that have been held during the past several months, beginning in Union Square in New York City in November 2012. These workers have ignited a movement, with a new organization, Fast Food Forward, in the lead. President Obama said in a Labor Day e-mail message across the country that "...everyone who works hard in America has a chance to get ahead..." with "...a good job that pays a good wage." But if he was paying attention, he saw a different reality last Thursday in a nationally well-orchestrated day of outrage from the hard-working, struggling poor.

One of the unfulfilled dreams of Dr. King's is that we still have lingering poverty on an unacceptable scale. According to the Census Bureau, the poverty level in the U.S. reached 48.5 million in 2011 - nearly 16% of the American population - up from 46.2 million in 2010. One-third of adults living in poverty today are the working poor, who are also disproportionately minorities. Dr. King died in 1968 a month before launching his "Poor Peoples Campaign." That is exactly what the Fast Food Forward movement is carrying on, under the very savvy leadership of Kendall Fells, their organizing director and President. They have been able to garner support from the clergy and unions, with SEIU becoming a major supporter and organizer - indeed, yesterday SEIU led a series of actions across the country to expose Walmart's deplorable labor practices. Fast food workers also have gained wide support from the public. One of their more basic requests is that they are given a more consistent work schedule that does not change day to day, or at least provides them with enough advanced warning if a change is to take place. How can a mother take care of her child if she doesn't know when she must leave for work or can come home from one day to the next?

Fast food workers are drowning in economic hardship, trying to live on $7.25 per hour, and in some case a bit more. These workers are mainly women, with 25% being parents who can barely make ends meet on an average pay of less than $11,200 per year while working in a $200 billion industry. According to an e-mail from SEIU, just last year, the top eight national fast food restaurants alone took in profits of $7.35 billion. The work practices in these jobs are also abusive, and there are regular threats of retaliation to these workers, along with lectures and literature handed out on the job that are anti-union, and some workers have even been fired for going out on strike. Yet this industry views their employees' jobs as stepping-stones to a brighter future, referring to them as young workers in entry level jobs. The truth is, the median age of a fast food worker is now 28, and many are working these jobs after losing better paying jobs in this seemingly never-ending recession.

This industry is on notice, and in response there have been some small raises here and there. One chain even finally repaired an air conditioner at one of its restaurants that had broken down on the hottest day of the summer after pressure from workers. Too many of these low paid workers are given only part time work, so they qualify for Medicaid and food stamps at taxpayers' expense. We wind up subsidizing some of the most profitable corporations in the country - where are the so-called "deficit hawks" on that one?

There are 4 million fast food workers in the U.S., with 50,000 living and working in New York City. These strikes targeted some of the most profitable fast food chains, which also serve less than healthful food, including McDonalds, Wendy's, Burger King, Taco Bell, KFC, Dominos, Papa John's and Pizza Hut - those top eight profit-makers in 2012. Of course, if the public boycotted these places for a week, the impact and results would be enormous. One McDonalds worker in NYC, highlighted in a New York Daily News article about the August 29 protest, revealed that she received a paycheck for $215. She is a 44-year old married mother of a teenage daughter, and her electric bill that month was $218. How MLK would have loved to see and be a part of this national strike of fast food workers. This was an opportunity to highlight the low and stagnant wages in many other low paying industries as well that are making the American Dream more elusive every day for so many. This is one issue that can unite all Americans, regardless of race or ethnicity. Poverty in America is intolerable, and we all have a stake in its eradication.

I attended the August 29 rally in Union Square in New York City, and the signs and banners carried by the crowd made their case. Organizers fired up the crowd with chants of "This is not about politics, it's about justice" and "Welcome to the capital of inequality." Signs abounded with slogans such as "A union now to rebuild the dream" and "Higher Pay For a Stronger New York." The crowd also broke into chants of "Si se puedes! ("Yes we can!"), invoking Caesar Chavez and his inspiring and groundbreaking organizing work unionizing California farm workers in the early 60's. This group of strikers vowed to return again and again to Union Square until they win.

At some point during the protest, all of the Democratic mayoral candidates suddenly appeared, taking turns to address the crowd for a few minutes each. Many made promises about raising the minimum wage. Support was thrown to Mayoral candidate "de Blasio Bill," as the crowd laughed and chanted his named backwards. His is an interracial family, and the crowd seemed to connect with him. None of the hopefuls hung around to work the crowd, though, missing an opportunity to see and feel and understand the frustration of these mainly minority workers.

And where were New York Senators Chuck Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand? Rep. Caroline Maloney was the lone member of Congress from New York to appear. If Congress really has an interest in pumping up the economy, then raising the minimum wage adequately must become a top priority when they return from their long recess. After all, 80% of our GDP is in consumer spending, and this would be a great way to kick start it.

- with Jonathan Stone