Four young men breakdancing on the Federal Plaza last week in downtown Chicago say a lot about why this Labor Day provides occasion for both celebration and protest.
The dancers — black, white, Latino, all of them putting on a spectacular show — were fast food and retail workers on strike for the day for $15 an hour pay and the right to form a union without retaliation. They were among about 400 low-wage workers from more than 60 stores convening for a celebration after a day of delivering their key demands — with specific additional grievances tailored to each workplace — to their employers, who, from McDonald’s to Sears, make up a Who’s Who of brand-name fast-food and retail companies.
It was the third strike for many of the workers. The strike wave began last November in in New York, with Chicago holding protest marches late last year as well, and it spread in July to five other traditional union strongholds. On Thursday — just after the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom — thousands of workers from a total of approximately 60 cities joined a national day of action, the largest yet. Strikes cropped up in the South, in cities such as Raleigh, N.C. and Memphis, Tenn., and in smaller Northern cities, such as Bloomington and Peoria, Ill. In tiny Ellsworth, Maine, a community-labor group demonstrated support for higher pay fast food workers even though none went on strike. In some cases, workers appear to have organized themselves after hearing about the earlier actions, calling whomever they could contact and asking how they could take part in the next strike.
The dark side of this jubilant surge of activity is the many reasons why it is needed — weak job growth, underemployment, flat or declining wages, feeble labor standards, a stalled union movement, an occupational structure shifting toward more low-wage service jobs, growing inequality, and widespread abuse of power by the very rich.
The decline in the official unemployment rate masks the degree to which American workers face a very grim world of work. Much of the improvement in the unemployment rate simply reflects a growth in the number of discouraged or “marginally attached” workers (people who want a job but have given up looking). The share of the workforce working part-time involuntarily has risen as well.
Such slack in the demand for labor, along with the declining power of unions and the cuts in pay demanded by both private and public employers (often accompanied by outsourcing or, at public employers, privatizing), holds down — or pushes further down — wages that had improved little even from 2000 to 2007, when the recession began. Between 2007 and 2012, even as productivity grew by 7.7 percent, wages declined for the bottom 70 percent of the workforce, according to a recent Economic Policy Institute report by Lawrence Mishel and Heidi Shierholz.
The weakness of the labor movement, especially in growing, low-wage sectors like retail and fast food, accounts for much of the decline, but the diminishing value of the minimum wage plays a big role. According to another recent EPI study, by Sylvia Allegretto and Steven C. Pitts, if the federal government restored the minimum to its peak value in 1968, the minimum wage would be $9.44 today in inflation-adjusted dollars, not $7.25. And if it matched in real terms the $2.00 minimum wage demanded 50 years ago by the March on Washington, the minimum wage would be $13.39 — not far from the striking fast food workers’ demand and not far from the minimum in many advanced countries (approximately $12 an hour in France and $15 an hour in Australia, for example). If the minimum wage had risen as much as worker productivity since 1968, it would be $22 an hour.
Any rise in the federal minimum would especially help people of color and women, Allegretto and Pitts report. Contrary to stereotypes of low-wage workers as teenages, a raise would help many adult, family-supporting workers. In a report for EPI published in March, David Cooper and Dan Essrow calculated that with even the modest $10.10 minimum proposed by Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) and Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.), the average age of low-wage workers whose pay would likely increase is 35. Eighty-eight percent are over 20 years old, and 35.5 percent are 40 or older. In addition, 44 percent of the beneficiaries would be workers with some college education, and 28 percent with children.
The plight of low-wage workers is becoming a much more acute problem as the nation’s occupational structure, that is, the kinds of jobs being created or retained, has changed. According to Daniel Alpert of the Century Foundation, 70 percent of the jobs created in the second quarter of this year were low-wage, like retail and hospitality work, about twice the percentage of such jobs in the overall workforce. And about 50 percent of all new jobs in the first half of 2013 were part-time.
Wages have risen for the top 5 percent, however, especially for the very richest. The top 1 percent — mainly executives and financial managers — captured 121 percent of the nation’s new income during the first two years of the recovery, according to University of California, Berkeley economist Emanuel Saez. How do they do that? Essentially, they direct all national income gains to themselves while simultaneously taking more away from the 99 percent.
Looking more closely makes the picture even uglier. The success of the very rich often involves large elements of chicanery, fraud and exploitation of public resources, according to a new study, “Bailed Out, Booted, Busted,” the 20th annual Labor Day edition of the Executive Excess reports from the Institute for Policy Studies. The researchers compiled data from 20 years of their studies, which relied on annual Wall Street Journal surveys of CEO pay.
Their final survey covered 500 CEOS — the 25 highest-paid CEOs each year for the two decades. IPS reports that 38 percent of these CEOs had performed extremely poorly as executives of their firms. Of those poor performers, 22 percent of the top pay winners led their firms into bankruptcy or bailout; 8 percent were fired (but got golden parachutes worth $38 million on average); and 8 percent were found guilty of fraud.
Then there are simply the super-excessively paid, making over $1 billion during their tenure, and other executives who fed at the “taxpayer trough,” collecting top pay while their companies profited as major government contractors.
Any move towards equality will have to hold down the excess at the top as well as raise the bottom. But beyond basic fairness, society would reap additional benefits — faster and more stable growth (and therefore a speedier, more robust recovery); less crime and social tension; a stronger democracy; and better health, longer life and lower medical expenses, to mention a just few. (See Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett, The Spirit Level.)
U.S. Rep. Jan Schakowsky, co-chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus was not speaking rhetorically, but quite practically, when she told strikers in Chicago, “These workers are among thousands and thousands of low-wage workers around the country, who have a really reasonable and simple request, and that is that they be paid a living wage. …These are the makers; they are the takers. I want to thank these brave workers who walked out. They are doing it for themselves and they are doing it for America.”
And it seems the strikers are doing it their way, with people volunteering and reaching out to other workers to spread the word. Most events include raps composed by strikers about their work, and protest strategies reflect their decisions. For example, in Chicago, the strikers this time wanted actions at every store where someone walked out, not just a couple of highlighted targets, as in the July strike. And they wanted a celebration at the end. If the fast food fight succeeds, it will be a result of that insurgent sentiment.
The spirit was there in the breakdance — introduced in Spanish and English, as all the program was before the crowd of comfortably mixed ethnicities, performed under a banner reading, “Fight for 15, Valemos Mas.” Dancing to Michael Jackson’s “Beat It,” two stands-in for CEOs in mock-suits faced off against two workers from Potbelly’s.
The workers won. It wasn’t Pete Seeger and the Almanac Singers singing “Roll the Union On.” But I’m sure Pete would have approved.
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David Moberg, a former senior editor of In These Times, was on staff with the magazine from when it began publishing in 1976 until his passing in July 2022. Before joining In These Times, he completed his work for a Ph.D. in anthropology at the University of Chicago and worked for Newsweek. He received fellowships from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and the Nation Institute for research on the new global economy.