08/05/2013 09:29 pm ET Updated Oct 05, 2013

Why the Strike Is Back

It's been hard to escape news of strikes this year. Fast food strikes are spreading -- again -- through the country this week. Walmart workers launched strikes recently and the high-profile public transit strike in San Francisco showed that strikes are back.

Here in New York, strikes have spread to other low wage industries like car washes and supermarkets where workers made gains as a result. Even non-union security officers at JFK airport voted to authorize a Christmas holiday strike last year to protest retaliation from security companies for their organizing efforts and for speaking out about how their low pay and poor working conditions compromised safety. Luckily for travelers the Port Authority intervened by agreeing to meet with the workers and the strike was averted.

But since Christmas, public action has spread to cabin cleaners, baggage handlers, wheelchair assistants and sky caps at the airport. Along with airport security officers, these workers are speaking out against poverty wages and calling for respect and decent conditions at NY-area airports.

All of this organizing has been so high-profile that when a local McDonald's refused to fix the air conditioning in the middle of a recent heat wave, the workers called Fast Food Forward (the organization behind the New York City fast food strikes) and refused to work until management fixed the problem.

So what's behind all this activity? Why are workers standing up proud and in the words of the Memphis sanitation strike saying, "I am a man" and "I am a woman"?

For many workers, there simply is no other choice if they want to earn enough to feed their families and help build New York's economy. In New York, several committed elected officials kicked off #CanYouSurvive, living on the wages of fast food, airport, supermarket and home care workers.

They have been joined by dozens of regular people who are agreeing to live on $37 to $92 (the amount these real-life workers have to spend beyond the cost of rent, taxes and utilities). One elected official spent almost 10 percent of his total on a single sandwich (a sandwich that was cheaper than many in this city). Imagine that for a second -- that's not a lot of money.

In fact, it's a far cry from what people in New York need to live. A new report by the Economic Policy Institute says that to make ends meet, an adult with a child in New York City needs $67,153 a year -- and a family with two adults and two children needs even more. That's $32.28 an hour at a full-time job.

But those aren't the jobs we are creating. Low-wage jobs are the fastest-growing occupations in New York City, with the number of workers being paid minimum wage increasing ten-fold over the past six years. The purchasing power of minimum wage workers is 26 percent lower than it was in 1970, and nearly one-third of workers in New York City earn below $25,000 a year. (It's not just an issue here in New York -- nationwide, low-wage industries are growing almost three times as fast as medium- and high-wage industries.)

McDonald's recently recognized the impossibility of living on these wages and had a helpful suggestion for how its workers could get by - take a second job. Unfortunately, even if that were a reasonable suggestion, the flexible scheduling demanded by many low-wage employers like McDonald's makes it almost impossible.

For many airport workers, piecing together two jobs or working more than 40 hours a week at one job is the norm -- not the exception. Despite these long hours, it's still a struggle to pay for basic necessities like food and housing on the low wages airline contractors pay.

All this is why workers are striking. People like Kareem Starks, who works at a McDonald's, are standing up to make it clear that they deserve to be paid $15 and have the right to join a union. $15 is a far cry from the $32 that a New Yorker needs to feed his or her family and help grow our economy. But it's a heck of a lot more reasonable than $8 an hour.