Fifty years after the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, the spirit of that moment and movement lives on in the fast-food workers who, since beginning in New York in November, have held rolling one-day strikes at big-name chains in different cities to call for better wages and conditions.
The restaurant industry employs more than 4 million fast-food workers in the United States today — or more people than live in Los Angeles — many of them earning as little as $7.25 an hour and receiving no health insurance or even paid sick days. It is the largest low-wage employer in the country and the largest employer of people of color. Yet while top executives at food corporations like McDonald’s, Taco Bell, Olive Garden and Red Lobster make an average of $9.4 million per year, or $4,517 per hour, a full-time worker on minimum wage earns $15,080 per year — less than those execs pull down in four hours. And while the industry takes in $200 billion a year, many of its workers rely on taxpayer-subsidized food stamps and Medicaid to get by.
Raising the minimum wage for all workers in America was one of the principal demands of the 1963 March on Washington. And yet, adjusted for inflation and purchasing power, today’s minimum wage is basically unchanged, and communities of color continue to face persistently high rates of unemployment and poverty.
Raising the federal minimum wage to just $10.10 an hour and increasing the tipped minimum wage from $2.13 to 70% of the regular minimum wage, as has already been proposed in Congress, would immediately lift almost 6 million workers, 60% of them people of color, out of poverty. We would help strengthen the ladder of opportunity and prosperity for millions of our fellow Americans while easing the burden on public subsidies that these workers currently depend on to meet basic needs. At least a half million of those lifted above the poverty line would be food industry workers. And what would this cost? Basically nothing. Even in the unlikely event that the full cost of the minimum-wage increase was passed directly to consumers, we would pay around a dime a day to ensure that the people who help put food on our tables can feed their own families. Plus, higher wages boost consumer spending, which strengthens the economy for all of us.
Throughout his life, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and other civil rights leaders spoke out for racial justice and economic justice — seeing the two as inextricably bound together. When King was assassinated, he was in Memphis supporting striking sanitation workers, who were demanding a living wage, safe working conditions and an end to racial discrimination on the job. The fast-food workers staging walkouts across the United States today are the inheritors of that legacy.
Our progress on racial and economic justice will largely be determined by how effectively we as a nation respond to their pleas.
When King stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, his vision reflected the best intentions of our founders and the hopes in every American heart. He said, “We refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt. We refuse to believe there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation.”
Today, fast-food workers have laid their check before our nation’s feet, demanding the “riches of freedom and the security of justice” for America’s low-wage workers. It’s high time we pay up.
Saru Jayaraman is a lecturer at the Goldman School in conjunction with the Berkeley Food Institute, a collabroation between GSPP, the College of Natural Resources, the Journalism School and others. She is the author of “Behind the Kitchen Door." This piece was originally posted in the New York Daily News.