Thursday might be a tough one for fans of the Big Mac, as the "Fight for $15" movement is set to stage a massive, nationwide protest in the pursuit of higher minimum wage and the right to form a union. In more than 150 cities throughout the United States, fast food workers employed at McDonald's, Wendy's, KFC, Domino's and the like will walk off the job in an effort to spur management into increasing their base salary to $15 an hour.
During a speech in Milwaukee on Labor Day, President Obama was quoted saying, "You know what, if I were looking for a job that lets me build some security for my family, I’d join a union. If I were busting my butt in the service industry and wanted an honest day’s pay for an honest day’s work, I’d join a union. …I’d want a union looking out for me." These words have quickly become a rallying cry for organizations like Fast Food Forward and the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), the two groups who are spearheading the "Fight for $15" campaign.
Buoyed by these words, and having already seen success in Seattle (where $15 an hour is on its way to becoming the city-wide standard), Fast Food Forward and the SEIU are poised to make their biggest statement to date. Using the ongoing issue of growing income inequality as a springboard, the movement claims that the only way to get everyone on an even keel is to raise the wages paid to our lowest income employees. Understandably, this goal has set some segments of society on edge.
Now, it would be foolish to side with that small contingent who claim that the minimum wage should be abolished. Those folks have stated that a federally enforced minimum wage has the negative effect of killing jobs and raising prices (which in turn acts to discourage consumers from buying stuff). Without such a weighty anchor around a corporation's neck, they would be free to pay people the amount they actually deserve, which would in turn lower prices (because companies wouldn't have as many expenses) and increase the number of available jobs. These experiments, however, are always run in the context of a perfect capitalistic society.
Guess what, folks, America isn't a perfect capitalist society (though it'd be super if we were). Corporations don't care about their employees as much they'd like their customers to believe. Corporations are in the business of making money. In spite of recent court decisions that claim companies do have religious preferences, they still don't have loyalty (just Google "corporate inversion" if you want to know what I'm talking about) and they're under no sense of obligation to make their employees' lives any better than they absolutely need to be. If left to their own devices, companies would be totally fine with moving us back to the partial fiefdoms of the Industrial Revolution.
It's due to that lack of compassion that forces the need for minimum wage in this country, and it's due to ongoing lobbying on behalf of corporations that the minimum wage is so criminally low in this country. As long as the conversation's been going on, you've no doubt seen some chart or graph (like this one from the Pew Research Center) that explains that as the cost of living has increased, the value of minimum wage has plummeted. People making the federally mandated $7.25 an hour are currently living in a more complete state of relative poverty than any generation that's come before. Most of this has to do with Congress' seeming unwillingness to consider its poorest citizens by legislating regular increases in the minimum wage.
While we're there, here's another factoid that's being bandied about: if Congress had regularly raised the minimum wage to coincide with cost of living, the federal minimum wage today would be $10.90 an hour according to raisetheminimumwage.com. That would theoretically guarantee that fast food and service employees would be making a minimum wage designed to allow them to live with moderate comfort. It wouldn't be an easy life, of course, but it would still allow a low income individual to, say, afford rent in a two-bedroom apartment (which is impossible for any fast food worker at the moment). That's not all "woe to the poor" sentiment, either, because according to the Department of Labor, "more than 600 economists, seven of them Nobel Prize winners in economics, have signed onto a letter in support of raising the minimum wage to $10.10 by 2016." In other words, tons of people who should know, are advocating for an increase in the minimum wage.
What those learned types are not advocating for is $15 an hour. You know why? Because that's way too high. Sorry.
Doubling the minimum wage to appease fast food and service employees is a shortsighted solution. There's much informed debate on both sides as to whether the move would stimulate the economy by giving more buying power to consumers, or tank it by forcing companies to lay off employees to account for their new expenses. That's not a point this underinformed writer is able to comment on. What does seem evident, though, is this: a $15 an hour minimum wage doesn't hurt rich people, it hurts the middle class.
Let's just check out the numbers right quick. Last July, the fellas (and fellettes) at the Pew Research Center did a little digging to discover who exactly was earning minimum wage. They discovered that less than 3% of all workers (or 4.7% of all hourly workers) were paid the minimum wage in America. That's about 3.5 million people total. Of those 3.5 million, around 50% were aged 16 to 24 and around 60% were working their minimum wage job part time. In other words, that leaves around 1.8 million people who are both working for minimum wage and trying to support a family (and we're not even taking into account those people who work a minimum wage job to supplement a spouse's income). When you consider that there are currently a little over 200 million working-age Americans, is it really necessary to increase the minimum wage so drastically to accommodate less than one percent of the workforce?
Raising the minimum wage would decrease the income gap between the rich and poor, that much is true. It would also, however, decrease the gap between the poor and the middle class. As prices rose to account for the new fees companies would be expected to pay, middle class employees would find their salaries counting for less and less. Effectively, you'd be creating a larger section of the population who worry about being able to support themselves and their families. In other words, while the math would look closer, the income inequality chasm would be increased and possibly solidified.
Let's say that Fast Food Forward and the SEIU get their way and low income employees are able to unionize and earn a minimum of $15 an hour. We'll even do unions the favor of disregarding the fact that a portion of that new income would be placed in union vaults as opposed to workers' bank accounts (why do you think they're helping you out, people?). Proponents of the $15 an hour minimum wage seem to be operating under the assumption that in the aftermath of this legislation, CEOs across the nation would throw up their arms in defeat and slash their salaries in half. That's a fairy tale. Rather than handicap themselves, owners would undoubtedly either pass that cost along to consumers or cripple the earning power of their current employees. What they would not do is sacrifice their comfort in any way. In other words, the bill would land almost entirely on the shoulders of the middle class.
It stands to reason that we need a minimum wage, and that wage must be high enough so low income employees can work without worrying about where their next meal is coming from. But the minimum wage is not intended for people to thrive on, it's intended for people to survive on. That seems like a harsh lesson, especially when proponents of the $15 minimum wage consistently use imagery designed to tug at folks heartstrings, like the oft repeated example of a father or mother struggling to feed their family on such scant income. In spite of these seemingly benevolent motives, it would appear that such a drastic increase in minimum wage would compound that problem rather than solve it.
There's still no word from the giant companies who are being targeted by these protests, but with thousands of workers from Little Rock to Raleigh and New York to Los Angeles planning to walk out of their day jobs tomorrow, you can bet the response will be swift.