The Fast Food Economy

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Fast food workers, walking off the job, say their minimum wage just isn’t enough. We'll look at the low wage, fast food economy.

Demonstrators in support of fast food workers protest outside a McDonald's as they demand higher wages and the right to form a union without retaliation Monday, July 29, 2013, in New York's Union Square. (John Minchillo/AP)
Demonstrators in support of fast food workers protest outside a McDonald's as they demand higher wages and the right to form a union without retaliation Monday, July 29, 2013, in New York's Union Square. (John Minchillo/AP)

Across the country, fast food workers are walking off the job, saying their wages are just too low. They can’t make it, and they can’t take it.

Tuesday it was Kansas City, and before that it was Seattle, St. Louis, Chicago, New York, Detroit and Milwaukee.  They’re saying, "You try living on $7.25 an hour" — the minimum wage in most of the country. Poverty wages.

Critics say, "Come on! Move on up. Get another job."

For a lot of people, that’s easier said than done. And the wages feel punishing.

This hour, On Point: Fast food workers, walking off the job, saying they can’t take it anymore.
-- Tom Ashbrook


Steven Greenhouse, labor and workplace correspondent for The New York Times. Author of "The Big Squeeze: Tough Times For The American Worker." (@greenhousenyt)

Diana Furchtgott-Roth, senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute and a contributing editor of Rear Clear Markets. Formerly the chief economist of the U.S. Department of Labor, the chief of staff of President George W. Bush's Council of Economic Advisers and an economist on the staff of President Reagan’s Council of Economic Advisers. (@FurchtgottRoth)

Terrance Wise, 34-year-old father of three daughters who works at Burger King and Pizza Hut in Kansas City, Missouri. He has worked in the fast food industry for 18 years.

Mary Ann Harris, 64-year-old Chicago resident and Wendy’s restaurant worker, where she has been employed for 11 years.

Interview Highlights

Steven Greenhouse gives background on the strikes and the two sides of the argument:

This week, there are going to be fast food strikes in seven cities at McDonald's, Taco Bells, Wendy's, Burger King, you name them — up to 20 different brand restaurants. It started in November with the first series of strikes in New York City, and it's really been expanding ... The folks pushing this — different community groups, some labor unions, most of all the Service Employees International Union — are really trying to create in many ways a low-wage workers' movement, and they decided to begin with the fast food industry.

They really think that the typical wages in the fast food industry ... the median wage for front line workers is $8.90 an hour in the fast food industry. They say that's just not enough to live on ... a lot of these jobs are part-time, so you have a lot of workers who work maybe 20 hours a week. They make, say $8.50 an hour. That's $170 a week, $8,500 a year. And these people are saying that's just not enough, something is fundamentally unfair, we have to change it.

On the other side, the industry, many conservatives in Congress say these workers should just be paid what the market determines, and the market says they should get $7.25, $8.00, $8.50 an hour. If the market were willing to pay them more, they'd pay them more. And if they really aren't happy with their jobs, then let them get  a college degree and go elsewhere. One of the things we see is that about 40 percent of these low-wage workers — 40 percent of the workers in the United States who earn less than $10 an hour have some college or a college degree, which is pretty surprising.

So the big question is after these strikes in these seven cities this week, where does the movement go from here? Can they really pressure even the McDonalds and the Burger Kings to raise wages? Can they pressure Boston City Council, the New York City Council, the Detroit City Council to raise the minimum wage or get their states to do so?

Terrance Wise works for both Burger King and Pizza Hut and described his struggle:

We're slowly dying off in these jobs. I've invested eight years with Burger King, poured a tremendous amount of energy into the company, only for them to continue to let me down. As far as my family, I have three daughters ... I'm currently homeless. And this movement is about making the public aware ... they come in, you see the crisp bag that we hand the food out and we've got to be smiley-smiley, so you would think life is just peachy. But when I clock out and I leave my shop, I actually have no home to go to. And I don't see what could possibly be right about that.

One of our callers — Don from Columbia, S.C. — said that the problem wasn't with the jobs, but rather with personal drive and work ethic. Here's how Wise responded:

My mom, when I was growing up, she was a restaurant general manager. So these jobs can be good paying jobs. They make the money, they make the profits, millions of dollars every year, and the s hould be able to share and distribute it and make sure their employees are taken care of.

The stigma is everyone that works here is high school students coming in. I work with adults with families and kids ... So to say these are just low-wage, entry jobs and they're for high schoolers and they're unskilled — there's a lot goes into our jobs. We operate, we deal with customers, we do a lot of work, but we're paid pennies for what we do.

Greenhouse responded to Don, too:

Don in Columbia voices the sentiments of a lot of people, but I think Don forgets that we in the United States have freedom of speech. We have freedom to speak out. Federal law guarantees the right to push to improve your ages, to improve your working conditions. And I think Terrence and many others, they're just exercising their rights of free speech and to try to improve their lot and to pursue the American Dream.

Now, some people say you accept the job, you should stick with whatever wage they offer you. But in American history, tens of millions of workers have pushed over decades to try to improve their wages at their job ... of all the American workers making less than $10 an hour — which ain't much — 40 percent are over the age of 35. So I think there's a misconception that these fast food jobs are just for teenagers. Many of them are for adults; 27 percent of people who earn less than $10 an hour are parents. They have to raise their kids.

Wise on raising consumer prices to raise worker wages:

I've had feedback from customers and people in the community. Some get it that it's morally unethical that we live the way we do. And they say, "For my neighbor, my brother Terrance, I'd pay an extra 60 cents to see his family not homeless. I'd pay an extra 60 cents to see Ms. Harris in Chicago who can't afford medical do better." So it's about your neighbor. Tom, would you pay an extra 60 cents to keep a family off the street and to make sure that everyone in these United States lives well?

Caller Victoria on the difficulty of moving out of the service industry and the cost of education:

This whole notion that folks should get a second job on top of the first — a lot of these quick service restaurants expect people to have absolute open availability while only scheduling about 25 hours a week. I have a college education and because of the economy have had to settle for working in a restaurant. And I tell you what: It's been impossible to get a schedule that will allow me to go get my master's or any continuing education or even allow for me to have any money to get further education.

You keep saying, "Well, why don't you just get another job somewhere else?" You almost get pigeonholed. I graduated in 2004 ... it's been impossible to find other jobs because people don't think I have the professional qualifications or the ability to do anything besides work at a restaurant now.

Interactive Map

CNN Money: 2013 Minimum Wage, State By State

From Tom's Reading List

The Los Angeles Times: Hundreds Of Fast Food Workers Strike Over Minimum Wage: "Advocacy groups such as Fast Food Forward organized strikes in New York City, Chicago, St. Louis, Detroit, Milwaukee, Kansas City, Mo., and Flint, Mich., to protest the $7.25 federal minimum wage. Demonstrators, coming from jobs in mega-chains such as McDonald’s and KFC, are also seeking the right to form unions without retaliation."

The New York Times: Fighting Back Against Wretched Wages: "Their anger has been stoked by what they see as a glaring disconnect: their wages have flatlined, while median pay for chief executives at the nation’s top corporations jumped 16 percent last year, averaging a princely $15.1 million, according to Equilar, an executive compensation analysis firm."

This program aired on July 31, 2013.


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