A Minute With...

Steven Ashby, expert on labor strategies

9/23/2013  8:00 am

Steven Ashby is a professor of labor and employment relations at the Urbana campus of the University of Illinois and the author of the 2009 book “The Staley Workers and the Fight for a New American Labor Movement.” In an interview with News Bureau business and law editor Phil Ciciora, Ashby, an expert on labor’s new strategies, discusses the impact of the one-day fast-food worker strikes that occurred last summer.

As strikes by fast-food workers expand across the U.S., do you think that this movement has momentum or do you foresee it fizzling out similar to the Occupy Wall Street movement?

image of professor steven ashbyThis is the largest movement of fast-food and retail workers in U.S. history, with the August one-day strikes affecting more than a thousand stores in 58 cities. The movement clearly has momentum, and there are several reasons why. There is less turnover in these jobs due to the weak economy, and there are a larger number of workers who were laid off from better-paying jobs who expect to earn enough to live on without government aid such as food stamps, free school lunches, free medical care for their kids and Medicaid. The average age of a fast food worker is now 28.

Moreover, this is not a traditional organizing drive that typically lasts a couple of months. Organizers know this is an uphill battle that will take years. I’ve talked to many organizers and workers, and this is not a top-down affair; there are hundreds of fast-food and retail workers who are taking leadership of the campaign. And rather than just target one company, the campaign is unusual in that the effort is to organize all the downtown retail and fast-food workers in dozens of cities. The workers have chosen the tactic of a one-day strike, which they’ve engaged in three times so far, and due to the power of social media their message has rapidly spread nationwide. Each one-day walkout involves more cities and more workers than the previous one.

As last month we celebrated the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, we should recognize that the fast-food and retail workers’ nationwide movement has simply picked up the baton of his poor peoples’ movement, which was dropped after King’s assassination.

Is the situation complicated by the fact that franchisees, not the parent corporations, set the prevailing wage rates for most stores? Or does that afford individual stores more latitude in setting hourly wage rates?

The workers recognize that they cannot successfully improve wages and benefits at just one store, such as one McDonald’s, Victoria’s Secret or Jimmy John’s, which would put that store or restaurant at a competitive disadvantage. They aim to raise compensation for all the retail and fast-food workers in a city, and indeed, in the country.

The campaign points out that the corporations they target can well afford to more fairly share their wealth – McDonald’s made $5.5 billion in profits last year, Wal-Mart $17 billion and Macy’s $1.3 billion. Nationally, corporate profits are at or near record highs.

Since the Occupy Wall Street movement two years ago, there has been increased news coverage that America is witnessing the fastest, greatest increase in the income gap in our history. Wages have fallen to a record low as a share of America’s gross domestic product. In 1970, wages accounted for 53.6 percent of GDP; today, wages account for just 43.4 percent. Each loss of a percentage point equals a $132 billion shift in income from working people to the wealthy. The steepest decline has occurred since 2001, when the wage share was 49 percent. Today, the wealthiest 400 Americans have the same combined wealth as the poorest half of Americans – more than 150 million people.

Do we need to raise the minimum wage? President Obama has spoken out about the issue in the past, but should this be a pressing issue for Congress?

It should be a pressing issue for anyone concerned with speeding America’s economic recovery, or anyone worried about the morality of tens of millions of people being paid poverty wages by prosperous corporations.

Congress has not passed minimum wage legislation since 2006, and the last raise to $7.25 an hour was in 2009. Unlike Social Security, the federal minimum wage is not tied to inflation – although 10 states have laws that do this. (Illinois does not.) If in 1968 Congress had tied the minimum wage to inflation it would be $10.75 an hour in 2013.

An innovative element of the fast-food and retail workers’ one-day strikes is the depth of community support. Each time a worker returns to work, dozens of community activists and clergy walk the worker back in and meet with the boss to get a promise that the striker will not be illegally punished for their work stoppage. When polled on raising the minimum wage to $9 an hour, seven in 10 people agree. The bulk of Americans believe that all who turn in a hard day’s work deserve a wage they can live on without government assistance.

Would raising the minimum wage to $10 or even $15 per hour hurt employment or the economy, as many business leaders have predicted?

A major factor prolonging the economic crisis is that wage earners – the bulk of consumers – are paid too little. It is not a coincidence that six years of high unemployment and underemployment with no end in sight were preceded by two decades of wage stagnation. A raise to just $10 an hour would mean 30 million people would immediately get a raise, and have more money in their wallets to buy goods. A raise to $15 would mean workers would not need to rely on taxpayer-funded programs that aid the poor.

While we Americans pride ourselves as being, as President Obama recently stated, “exceptional,” the reality is that when comparing employment laws among wealthy nations we are exceptional in how poorly we treat working people. Australia has a minimum wage of over $16 an hour; France over $12; and Belgium, New Zealand, the Netherlands and Ireland over $11.

Paying people poverty wages and having the highest income gap among wealthy nations is not intrinsic to capitalism; it is a moral and legislative choice that America has made, repealing the country’s trajectory in the first three decades after the New Deal.


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