If you need your Big Mac or Doritos Locos Taco fix today, it may have to wait, as fast food workers in 100 cities are walking off the job in protest of their industry's low wages. These strikes are a follow-up to actions that took place across the country over the course of the last year, which were in turn spurred by strikes in New York City.
Workers plan to call for a wage of $15 per hour, and of course, are already receiving sneering responses from the titans of industry. The National Restaurant Association, a lobbying group that represents the biggest fast food brands, has already derided the actions as a "campaign engineered by national labor groups." (It's unclear why that would make them any less legitimate, but that's a story for another time.)
The real question is: Are these strikes justified? A look at the data says they absolutely are.
Researchers at the University of California-Berkeley have found that more than half of families of front-line fast food workers are enrolled in at least one public program, and the cost of this assistance is $7 billion annually. The National Employment Law Project took that data and found the low-wage business model of just the 10 largest fast food companies costs taxpayers nearly $4 billion per year, of which McDonald's alone is responsible for $1.2 billion.
Meanwhile, those 10 companies collectively made nearly $7.5 billion in profits last year, and paid $52.7 million to their highest-paid executives.
And that brings us to another way in which fast food corporations not only harm their own workers, but the public writ large. Because of a pernicious tax loophole, corporations are able to write off the costs of executive compensation that is deemed "performance based." As the Institute for Policy Studies reported Tuesday, this means taxpayers have subsidized CEO pay at fast food companies to the tune of $64 million over the last two years. That includes $33 million in tax breaks for Yum! Brands – which owns Taco Bell, Kentucky Fried Chicken and Pizza Hut – and $14 million in tax breaks for McDonald's. Incidentally, those two companies are two of the three largest employers of low-wage workers in the country.
And there's more. An analysis by Time's Christopher Matthews showed fast food companies are not only doing well, but are getting more profitable, yet aren't sharing that largesse with their employees. And the corporations' claims that workers can move their way up from front-line employee to management, or that being a minimum wage fast food worker is just temporary? They're mostly a myth.
So on the one hand, workers are receiving so little pay that they are required to go on public assistance programs. On the other, the companies benefiting from the productivity of those workers make billions in profits, pay their CEOs millions of dollars and then dump more costs onto taxpayers via a ridiculous tax break for executive pay.
The workers, then, seem more than justified in asking to be paid an actual living wage. But this problem goes far beyond just fast food workers. If the federal minimum wage had simply kept up with inflation over the last 40 years, it would be above $10 today, instead of its current $7.25. If over that same period it had kept up with the rate of growth of the income of the richest 1 percent, it would be above $22 per hour, as the New York Times recently noted.
Instead, the minimum wage has actually been a poverty-level wage since 1982. And lest you think that this is just an issue for teenagers working summer jobs, the Economic Policy Institute has found that most minimum wage workers are older than 20, and that many are married with families. Over the last 30 years, in fact, minimum wage workers have gotten much older and much more educated.
Several states and cities have recently taken matters into their own hands to somewhat combat these low and stagnant wages. For example, Washington, D.C.'s city council voted, along with two adjacent counties, to raise the minimum wage to $11.50. California recently voted to boost its wage to $10 by 2016, while New Jersey approved an increase to $8.25, along with a measure to index the wage to inflation.
President Obama, too, has thrown his support behind a Democratic bill to raise the minimum wage to $10, but its prospects in the Republican-controlled House are dim, to say the least, even though polls show overwhelming support for a minimum wage increase.
So fast food workers are doing what they can to draw attention to the inequities enshrined by the current system and perhaps get their employers to change their ways. Here's hoping they succeed, and pull the rest of the country along behind them.