To Celebrate Labor Day, Give American Workers a Raise

Just before 7:00 a.m. on August 29, I arrived at the "Rock and Roll" McDonald's in downtown Chicago and saw a growing crowd of people wearing red T-Shirts saying "Strike for 15" and "We are Worth More." They were part of a nationwide one-day strike of poverty wage workers who were calling for $15 an hour and the right to form a union. I was there to express my support because for years I've been fighting to reverse the debilitating and growing income inequality in our country.

The workers energetically shouted chants like "I can't survive on eight twenty-five."  $8.25 is the minimum wage in Illinois, a full dollar higher than the Federal minimum wage. McDonald's employees work an average of 24 hours per week, and those I spoke with who had been working a decade or more had advanced up to $8.50 per hour, earning a grand total of $10,608 for the whole year.  

Compare that to the pay package of McDonald's CEO Donald Thompson -- $13,751,919 in 2012. That comes out to an hourly wage of $6,611. Don earns more in the first two hours of the first day of the year than a McDonald's worker makes all year long.  

But lest you think Donald Thompson isn't thinking about his workers, check out the "Practical Money Skills" packet and the sample budget he gave his employees. The budget lists income for the worker's first job and second job, all totaling $2,060 for the month, acknowledging off the bat that no one can live on what he pays them. Recommended monthly expenses include $600 for housing and $20 per month for health insurance, amounts that are suitable only in his fantasy world.

Many low wage workers need government assistance just to make ends meet -- food stamps (now called the SNAP program) and health care. And lots of the wealthy Americans, including most of the Republicans in the U.S. House, not only want to cut these programs, but actually demonize the people who use them, suggesting they are lazy or drug addicts. But, in fact, the real Welfare Kings are the Fast Food Giants and all those poverty wage employers who refuse to pay a livable wage. They depend on the taxpayer-funded government programs to subsidize their employees.  It's the Wal-Marts and McDonald's that need those welfare programs. They are the Takers, not the Makers.

It was not always such in America. Between 1948 and 1973, the productivity of U.S. workers  rose 96.8 percent and wages rose 93.7 percent.  But between 1973 and 2011, productivity rose 80.1 percent but wages rose only 4.2 percent.  Median household income today, adjusted for inflation, is at 1989 levels. It is not coincidental that during that same time, union membership dropped from about 1/3 of the private sector workforce to about 6.5 percent today.  Nor is it coincidental that almost all of the growth in income, and yes, we are richer as a country than ever, has gone to the top 2 percent, and especially the top .1 percent.  

According to the Service Employees International Union, SEIU, who helped organize these one day strikes, median weekly wages in 2010 for union workers was $917, and $717 for non-union workers. That adds up to a life-style changing $10,400 per year advantage for union workers. No wonder the fast food industry and other low wage employers threaten or actually fire anyone engaged in union organizing. And no wonder more and more workers are fighting for union representation, their ticket to the middle class.

At the McDonald's rally, two of the workers spoke about their years of service to the company and the impossibility of living on the low wages. They also addressed the poor treatment.  Many of us went inside to present a letter from the Workers Organizing Committee of Chicago to the manager.  It wasn't much of a surprise that no one was available to accept the letter which read in part, "The hard-working employees at your location ask that you make the following changes immediately: 1) Stop requiring employees to pay out-of-pocket if their cash registers are short 2) Show respect to your employees -- less shouting and insulting language. 3) Air conditioning in the kitchen  4) Permit employees to drink water when the kitchen gets too hot. 5) Give raises and provide living wages 6) Stop requiring employees to pay out-of-pocket for food that is returned by customers." The whole event was passionate and peaceful.  

This week we commemorated the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.  That march sought to "give all Americans a decent standard of living" and called for a minimum wage of $2.00 per hour.  Adjusted for inflation, that would equal $15.26 an hour -- just about what the workers were asking for.  Congress can take significant action by substantially raising the minimum wage and guaranteeing all workers the right to organize.