Low-wage workers across the country are clocking out and rising up.
Fast-food employees plan a day of nationwide strikes today to demand higher pay in the largest of a series of industry protests that have rippled across the USA since last fall.
In the pre-Labor Day walkout, workers in at least 58 cities will picket restaurants such as McDonald's, Burger King and KFC during peak lunch hours, calling for $15-an hour-pay and the right to form a union without fear of retaliation. The event is also intended to roughly coincide with the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, a protest as much about economic justice as civil rights.
At a ceremony Wednesday commemorating the march, President Obama said that many of its goals have been achieved — but not economic opportunity for all Americans.
"For over a decade, working Americans of all races have seen their wages and incomes stagnate, even as corporate profits soar, even as the pay of a fortunate few explodes," he said. Obama has called for raising the federal minimum wage from $7.25 to $9, but the measure has stalled in Congress.
The wave of fast-food demonstrations comes as low-wage jobs dominate employment growth in the 4-year-old recovery, and as more adults find themselves aging inpositions that used to be career stepping-stones for teenagers. The trend has strained the nation's social safety net: More than a quarter of Americans earning less than $15 an hour receive one or more social services, such as food stamps and Medicaid, says the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities. Nearly 48 million people receive food stamps, more than in any year of the 2007-09 recession.
Persistently low wages for millions of Americans also dampens consumer spending and economic growth, economists say.
The frustrations of financially pressed Americans have sparked a movement to rally workers in fast-food and other industries long insulated from union influence, including Wal-Mart stores, car washes, and port trucking companies. They are often workplaces reliant on temporary, part-time, or immigrant employees who traditionally have been difficult to organize, and owned by powerful corporations that have vigorously discouraged union efforts.
Labor officials are adopting innovative new strategies to unite workers in less formal ways while painstakingly building a wider base of potential union members. Their push comes as the portion of Americans belonging to unions has fallen sharply to 11.5% from 25% in 1980.
"There's absolutely a new wave of organizing action among low-wage workers across the nation," says Paul Sonn, legal co-director of the National Employment Law Project (NELP). "In the past, there was a sense it was hard to organize these low-wage industries. Now they've become the centerpiece of our economy."
Meanwhile, states and cities are responding to the public pressure. Thirteen states and several cities have raised the minimum wage this year. Washington, D.C.'s City Council last month approved a bill requiring big-box retailers to pay a "living wage" of at least $12.50 an hour. And last year in California, Long Beach voters passed a measure requiring $13-an-hour pay for hotel workers.