When Scott Walker was county executive in Milwaukee, he was often said to have downgraded the need for a public transit system, by observing that his solution was for everyone to drive a nice car. He never provided the details about how those cars would be paid for, which may be one reason that Amalgamated Transit Union, Local 998, was prominent among the more established unions turning out Wednesday May 15 to support the organizing efforts of fast-food and other retail workers who have gone on strike in Milwaukee.
Fight for 15, a nationwide movement sponsored and aided by Service Employees International Union, has launched rolling strikes and mass marches in New York, Chicago, St. Louis, Detroit, and now Milwaukee, demanding that pay levels be raised to $15 an hour.
McDonald's employee Stephanie Sanders has estimated that about 65 percent of jobs added since the latest recession have been low-wage retail jobs. This has been a growing trend since the "Reagan proved deficits don't matter" recession of the 1980s, when well-paid manufacturing jobs were decimated, accelerating with the Bush Bubble recession beginning in 2007-2008. Sanders cites a study by the Economic Policy Institute estimating that by 2020 one in four American jobs will be paid close to the minimum wage.
A retired McDonald's manager in Spartanburg, South Carolina, familiar with a multi-outlet franchise in that area, estimated that about sixteen percent of total revenue goes into employee compensation, which would mean that doubling cashier and fry-cook wages would add less than a dollar to the cost of a value meal, even if company profits were left entirely intact.
A few years ago, when the city of Santa Monica, California propose to raise the minimum wage for businesses within city limits, a restaurant owner was quote on live camera by a national news program complaining that the increased wages would reduce his profits by twenty percent (leaving him with eighty percent of existing profits while improving pay for his entire work force).
It would be good if more low-wage workers could afford cars, especially with many higher-paid jobs moving far beyond the neighborhoods in Milwaukee that originally formed around where the jobs used to be. So long as workers are paid near minimum wage, if there is no bus service, they will all be driving to work in old, cheap cars that break down frequently. For those who can afford nice cars, that will turn peak commute times into a nightmare many times slower than any experience today.