Apr 11, 2013 - Issue 512

 BlackCommentator.com: Fast Food Strike: It Looks as if We’ve Been through This Before - Solidarity America - By John Funiciello - BC Columnist

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The lightning quick, one-day strikes against New York City’s fast food restaurants are a sign of the times, as well as a desperate attempt of low-wage workers to call attention to their plight: pay that is so low that they cannot live in the smallest apartment in the city or support a family.

Workers at places like McDonald’s, Burger King, and Kentucky Fried Chicken struck recently again for one day and are likely to do so in the near future, demanding that their pay rise from the minimum wage of $7.25, to $15 an hour. Any honest assessment of living conditions in New York City would show that $7.25 is far from a living wage.

One of the workers said that she was finding it difficult to live on her $7.25-an-hour wage, an understatement if there ever was one. It would be difficult to do so in any state in the nation, let alone in what is arguably the financial capital of the world. And a large group of the fast food workers are going to try to do something about it.

What is remarkable in this period of strikes is that it is the result of economic conditions that existed in the U.S. in the late 19th Century and early 20th Century, which was the time of the Robber Barons and rapidly increasing control of the economy by the corporations. It was a time when all of the members of a family went out to work, to bring in whatever pittance they could earn, to buy a loaf of bread or a bag of coal.

Americans are not so much into bread and coal anymore, but we do have their equivalent, and we certainly have the equivalent in the meager pay of those on the lower end of the economic ladder. In fact, some would say that most of the rungs are missing on that ladder and the working class chance of moving up, even to the middle, is about as good as winning a Powerball lottery.

The Great Recession that we are in is a prolonged and drawn-out final stage of a great readjustment in the economy that has been brought about by the scheming of Corporate America and its minions in Washington and the various state capitols, over the past 30 or 40 years. It has been going on longer than that. The past several decades have accelerated the process, which has included the emptying of the land of manufacturing and heavy industry. The rich and corporations found that they could enrich themselves much more easily if they farmed all of that out to other countries, where the labor costs were much cheaper and environmental laws, where they existed, were not much enforced.

Thus, since the presidency of Ronald Reagan, the U.S. has embarked on a “service economy,” in which, no matter how many degrees from whatever prestigious school of higher learning one had, a temporary job in one of the “service industries” would be waiting, at the minimum wage or slightly above. That is the situation in which Americans find themselves at this time, and it does not appear to be ready to change in this generation or the next. More and more, they are finding themselves in the working class.

When one-tenth of the top 1 percent of Americans hold as much wealth as the bottom 40 percent of the people, even the rich have to be a little concerned. When more and more people are hungry, it could be a little scary for them to have their gourmet meals delivered to their homes in gated communities. But, as long as the stock market remains high and their investments seem secure, they go on their merry way, ignoring the suffering all around them.

About a century ago, the working class was organizing unions and the powers that be were doing everything they could to stop them. There was no National Labor Relations Act and there was no union movement that encompassed all workers, so they had to make it on their own. When things got tough enough, they went on strike, even though it meant that they likely would be fired, or that they might never work again in their industry. Unions of the time, in their organizing and strike literature, had fliers and other information written in several languages, because the workers neither spoke each other’s languages, nor did they speak English. Anyone in the family who could work did work, the pay was so low and the people were suffering in their dank tenements.

They acted at that time because they were desperate. Today’s fast food workers in New York City are similarly situated. They come from all over the world, they speak many languages, they are of greatly varying racial and ethnic backgrounds, they may have skills or education that they cannot use in a service economy, they have families to support and bills to pay, and they may be debt-ridden, such as the situation for students who borrowed money for an education only to be told there were no jobs in their fields.

How to live and survive in any U.S. city is the dilemma they face. Because of the nature of the fast food business, these are jobs that are usually relatively easy to get, but they pay at the rock bottom of the economic scale. But this is the kind of job that racial minorities, immigrants, students, and the poor are forced to take. There is really no place for them to go (there isn’t a lot of upward mobility), so they are demanding to be treated as human beings; they are demanding that they be treated as the people who enable the corporate hierarchy to live their lavish lifestyles. They are demanding a rate of pay that will allow them to survive, let alone live a decent life with their families. 

In their struggle, they face some of the most hostile opposition that anyone has seen in generations: the Right Wing in politics (mostly Republicans) and those who control Corporate America, who have raised wage suppression to an art form.

An example of the societal pervasive hostile wage suppression, one only has to consider a short exchange of “commentators” on Fox News, which has seemingly become the propaganda arm of the GOP and Corporate America, in their efforts to keep things just as they are.

Here’s a bit of the exchange on Fox on April 5: Brian Kilmeade: “So I believe, you - minimum wage was never meant to be a career wage. If you work hard you will get higher - you will get more money. Here’s the other thing, as hard as it is in some cases, because you are a single mom or a single dad, you’ve got to get another job. You’ve got to get another job on top of that so you have two incomes. Hopefully, that will change.”

And, Steve Doocy, on the same show: “Brian you hit it on the nose I think the key thing. If it is a minimum wage job, expect to get paid the minimum wage. The National Restaurant Association said that they provide 13 million jobs, and those jobs could be jeopardized across the country if the minimum wage goes up. The industry says one of the best paths to achieving the American dream is to start with an entry level, minimum-wage job that is minimum wage.”

In case they hadn’t noticed, or willfully failed to notice, these minimum wage jobs are not held by teenagers who are looking for a way to pay for car insurance. They are held by women and men who have to support a family and have other responsibilities. And the 13 million jobs in the restaurant industry are not going to disappear if they are required to pay a livable wage. Saying that if one low-wage job is not enough, just get another shows that Fox talkers and the people who watch their shows don’t have a clue what is happening to the U.S. It is time they started finding out what’s happening.

With people like that looking out for the hard-working working class, what could go wrong?

BlackCommentator.com Columnist, John Funiciello, is a long-time former newspaper reporter and labor organizer, who lives in the Mohawk Valley of New York State. In addition to labor work, he is organizing family farmers as they struggle to stay on the land under enormous pressure from factory food producers and land developers. Click here to contact Mr. Funiciello.