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Jon Talton

Analysis and commentary on economic news, trends and issues, with an emphasis on Seattle and the Northwest.

May 30, 2013 at 10:24 AM

Fast-food strikes point to problems in economy

Fast-food workers have walked off the job in six cities over the past eight weeks, protesting low pay, poor working conditions, lack of hours and “wage theft.” The action spread to Seattle late last night at a Ballard Taco Bell and will continue today at selected McDonald’s, Burger King, Taco del Mar, Arby’s, Chipotle, Subway, Jack in the Box and Qdoba, among others. A rally is set for 4:30 pm, at Denny Park (100 Dexter Ave N.), followed by a march to nearby fast food locations.

A statement from the organization Good Jobs Seattle said the goal was “to build a sustainable future for Seattle’s economy from the bottom up — by turning poverty-wage jobs in fast-food and other industries into good jobs that offer opportunities for a better future and pay enough for workers to afford basic necessities like food, clothing and rent.” Fast-food businesses offer the lowest-paying non-agricultural jobs in the nation. According to the group, “The median hourly wage for Combined Food Service and Preparation Workers, Including Fast Food, is $9.50 an hour in the Seattle metro area. That is one of the lowest of any occupation in the region—lower than home health aides ($11.63 an hour), maids and housekeepers ($11.30 an hour) and child care workers ($10.74 an hour). Nationally, the median wage for fast food jobs is $8.78 an hour, lower than all other reported occupations.” Working 24 hours a week, a common threshold, an employee makes wages below the poverty line.

“It’s fast-paced, hard work, but at the minimum wage of $9.19 per hour and only 27 hours per week, I don’t earn enough to make ends meet,” blogged one worker from Ballard. “When I ask for more hours, my boss always says the same thing: hours are competitive – the harder you work, the more hours you’ll get. But I work hard, and I haven’t gotten any more hours.”

It’s difficult to know if this action can do more than raise the consciousness of customers who look past these workers. They don’t have the means or the power to stage a Flint sit-down strike out of the 1930s which unionized the automobile industry. But it points to several problems in the economy under the umbrellas of inequality and lack of opportunity. When I was a teenager, people my age worked in fast food on their way up the ladder. But at that time, jobs were abundant in the U.S. economy. Today, 11 million people are unemployed nearly 4 years after the official end of the recession. Corporate profits are at records but hiring is weak. Secure, full-time jobs with benefits and a path up, plus a dynamic economy powered by a rising middle class — these are things out of the past. Now many people are stuck in low-paying service jobs, including a large number who must take food stamps to get by or cobble together two or more part-time jobs. According to one study, half of the jobs created over the past three years have been low paying.

It’s no way to run an economy. Without a strong middle class and abundant ladders into it, consumer demand can’t support a growing economy. Whether your first reaction to these work actions is disdain or sympathy, the deeper issues deserve our reflection.

[UPDATE] Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn issued this statement this afternoon: “Seattle believes in shared prosperity for all of our workers, including those in the fast food industry. Too many of them are being left behind even as Seattle’s economy thrives. I support their organizing effort because our neighbors who work these jobs deserve to earn a living wage that can support their families and help them join a strong middle class.”

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