Editor’s note: This piece has been updated since its initial publication in 2017.
In 1933 FDR said, “no business which depends for existence on paying less than living wages to its workers has any right to continue in this country.”
He continued, “By ‘business’ I mean the whole of commerce as well as the whole of industry; by workers I mean all workers, the white collar class as well as the men in overalls; and by living wages I mean more than a bare subsistence level ― I mean the wages of decent living.”
And yet here we are, yet again, watching people lose their minds over the idea of raising the minimum wage.
In Ontario, the Liberals proposed raising the minimum wage to $15 per hour by 2019, a proposal that was later halted by Conservative premier Doug Ford. But at the time, the discussion brought out the same tired arguments yet again from the usual suspects.
“This will increase prices!” people scream, usually ignoring the fact that prices have consistently gone up over the years, even as wages have stagnated.
“This will cause massive unemployment!” is heard, despite the fact that history and recent studies show otherwise.
The truth is that the argument opposing raising the minimum wage has little to do with any of these arguments. People oppose raising the minimum wage mostly out of a lack of empathy for the working class and, specifically, those in the service industry.
People often look down on those who cook and serve their food, clean up after them, and bag their groceries. They pretend their lives are better not by chance or the lottery of their birth, but because of being smarter or having a better work ethic. One can see this whenever the subject of raising wages is brought up.
People talk about pulling themselves up by their bootstraps and how no one deserves nice wages for jobs they see as beneath them. It is as if working a full-time job at full-time hours is somehow the mark of laziness simply because the job in question doesn’t involve working at an office all day.
The fast food worker is often used as a prime example of a minimum wage earner that people can easily dismiss as undeserving of a raise. A popular meme posted online reads "$15 per hour? Meet your replacement" slapped across the photo of an automated checkout kiosk in a McDonald's.
Memes such as these are a common gripe of the fast food customer, always good enough to eat burgers and fries for a couple of bucks but seething with contempt for the employees at the same establishment. Such ignorance tends to ignore the fact that self-checkouts have been around for decades and yet retail and restaurant jobs are still necessary.
Our grandparents believed a person wasn’t their job.
Also, when it comes to automated checkouts, most customers don’t even like them. Never mind that a touch screen cannot cook the food, deliver the food, clean the washrooms, mop the floors, wipe down counters, take out the garbage...or fix itself when some genius customer breaks it.
We never hold the same contempt for the struggling coal miners and manufacturing workers who are already losing their jobs to automation? These, too, are jobs worked by people without higher education, yet never scoffed at like the retail worker or the fry cook. This despite the fact that more people work for just one fast food chain than there are in the entire mining industry today.
Truthfully, today’s Burger King employee isn’t that different from yesterday’s assembly line worker. Neither job requires higher education or skills that can’t be taught on the job. But only one is mocked and dismissed as beneath the average citizen.
When our grandparents came back from WWII, they wanted jobs that would afford them a house, a car, and a living wage with which they could afford a decent life. Those jobs included low-skill manufacturing gigs, assembly line work, and ― yes ― retail and service industry jobs. A middle-aged employee of a department store wasn’t looked upon as unworthy of a family and a home and respectable salary.
Our grandparents believed a person wasn’t their job. They didn’t live to work. They wanted a work day that ended on time and a job they didn’t take home with them. They wanted weekends that weren’t plagued by thoughts of the job or obsessing with getting ahead of the other guy. They didn’t necessarily want to be CEO and that wasn’t seen as a weakness.
No one rolled their eyes merely because they worked behind a counter and not in a corner office. And the minimum wage was something people could live on back then, not something to offer up teenagers on weekends.
Now we thumb our noses at the people we depend upon every day, as if they somehow are beneath us because of the jobs we need them to do. We talk about how these are jobs for teenagers, despite the fact that -- much like older people did these jobs 50 years ago -- the average age of a fast food worker is 29. We now act as if not having the highest ambition is somehow deserving of poverty.
The same jobs done by our grandparents' generation now pay slave wages as the people in charge in those corner offices make off with the most money. While we clutch our pearls at paying fifteen bucks to the worker in the kitchen, the CEO makes enough to money to feed and clothe all of the families of the workers employed at three restaurants.
We are already paying the wages we argue the companies shouldn't have to fork over.
And, make no mistake: Business is booming. Fast food is a multi-billion dollar industry with no signs of slowing down, no matter how popular people tell you that they love kale. North Americans adore fast food. They just hate fast food employees.
For all the talk of struggling restaurants and rising prices, CEO pay is nearly a thousand percent higher than it was just thirty years ago, and yet there has been nary a mention of fifty dollar Bic Macs or the crumbling of our economy. Meanwhile more than half of all fast food employees are so underpaid, they are on some form of government assistance. We are already paying the wages we argue the companies shouldn't have to fork over.
It is often noted that Henry Ford raised wages for his employees because he wanted them to be able to afford the cars he sold. "One's own employees ought to be one's own best customers," he wrote. How far we have come that workers for Ford were able to afford the cars they built, and today's service industry can only afford the burgers they cook.
Ward Anderson is a comedian, author, television and talk radio host. His novels are available in stores, his talk show, Offstage with Ward Anderson, is available on Amazon Prime, and he co-hosts the daily talk radio show "Ward & Al" on SiriusXM's Canada Talks channel. He can be found on Facebook at www.facebook.com/thewardanderson