tip off

Would you like a raise with that?

The minimum wage in the United States is just $7.25 an hour. For a long time that has remained unchanged and undebated — but the workers are now rising up.

It hasn’t been a great year for McDonald’s in its home market. The fast food goliath has recorded a worrying decline in its American numbers — same-store sales were down almost a full per cent in November. But there’s more angst at the world’s biggest hamburger chain.

Buffeted by trendier, more upscale competitors such as the booming Mexican food outpost Chipotle and the sandwich group Panera Bread, Maccas this year introduced a broad range of new products onto US menu boards. After customer wait times increased and dissatisfaction rose, it quietly scaled back the menu. In October, a Goldman Sachs survey ranked McDonald’s last in a list of 23 fast-food chains in terms of “food quality, healthfulness and customers’ willingness to pay more for the food than is currently charged”.

The group’s biggest misstep, though, was unwittingly becoming poster child for an ascendant movement. In an ill-advised McResource employee portal, it counselled employees to, among other things, break food into smaller pieces to eat less and “still feel full”. It also advised employees to apply for government assistance, get a second job, sing happy songs in trying times and sell unwanted possessions on eBay.

The site was seized on by the advocacy group Low Pay Is Not OK and swiftly went viral. McDonald’s was forced into an embarrassing retreat.

Similarly, Walmart, the largest private employer in the US, raised eyebrows when managers placed bins in employee-only areas last month with irony-free signs reading: “Please Donate Food Items Here, so Associates in Need Can Enjoy Thanksgiving Dinner.” Something is askew when employees at the nation’s biggest retailer cannot afford to feed themselves.

The US minimum wage sits at US$7.25 an hour. Over a 40-hour week, that is just $15,080 annually. New York fast-food workers earn an average yearly salary of $11,000. About 3.6 million people, most with children, attempt to make ends meet on this wage. Most of this vast army of workers relies on public benefits to supplement their low income. (Side note: McDonald’s CEO Don Thompson takes home about $25,000 per day.)

The US is the most fiercely capitalist country in the world. It’s a nation in which union membership sits at just 11%. Unions themselves are traditionally despised by the majority reared on the notion the movement stands for bullying and laziness in the workplace.Yet as the middle class shrinks and wages for most Americans go backwards, there is an unmistakable shift in sentiment occurring. For outsiders here, it has been remarkable to watch.

A job at McDonald’s, once the domain of high school dropouts or ambitious teenagers seeking additional pocket money, can now be a lifeline. Alarmingly, 35 is the average age of Americans earning the minimum wage.

Although the economy is no longer in recession, the benefits of economic recovery are being felt by an increasingly elite few. Some 58% of jobs created in the current recovery are low-wage roles in areas such as fast food and retail.

In response, something remarkable happened back in September on US Labor Day. In 60 cities around the country, staff at more than 1000 fast-food restaurants walked off the job. Their demand: a rise of pay to $15 an hour.

In the past 16 years, the US federal minimum wage has risen by just $2.10 an hour. It has not moved at all in four years …”

A movement has coalesced around a large, previously voiceless group with the attention of the media and the sympathies of the majority of Americans. Activist and employee advocacy groups are mounting a highly strategic campaign to increase wages of low-paid Americans. One group credited with starting the movement is Fast Food Forward, which began its crusade last year in New York.

In the past 16 years, the US federal minimum wage has risen by just $2.10 an hour. It has not moved at all in four years, although various cities and states have acted independently to raise their population’s hourly rate. Washington state has the highest, at $9.19 per hour. It was in Washington, at Seattle airport, that the campaign scored its biggest victory so far this year, landing a $15 per hour minimum for 6500 airport staff.

Here in Miami, Walmart has been a particular target of protests. On Black Friday, various outlets described one as the largest civil disobedience rallies ever held against the retail giant in Los Angeles. In a particularly poor look, protesters dressed as Santa Claus were handcuffed and arrested. Meanwhile, thousands of fast-food workers again walked off the job around the country last week.

Although employer associations have for years claimed that a rise in minimum wage will reduce staffing levels and increase prices, that view is beginning to wear thin. Many Americans are now grappling with the concept that perhaps paying a little more for a burger and knowing the person serving it to you is being compensated fairly is a fair tariff. One economist study estimates McDonald’s would recover half the cost of a pay increase by upping the price of a Big Mac from $4 to $4.05.

Conservative pundits are even wondering if the $385 billion spent on public benefits would significantly shrink if wages rise. In Florida alone, 115,000 fast food employees rely on benefit programs to feed their families.

The Service Employees International Union is co-ordinating the strikes at outlets and says it will continue until fast-food chains come to the negotiating table.

For his part, President Barack Obama has signalled wage increases as a priority. “Trends since the 1970s have led to a dangerous and growing inequality and lack of upward mobility that has jeopardised middle-class America’s basic bargain — that if you work hard, you have a chance to get ahead,” he said.

The President’s plan is less ambitious than the unions’: up the minimum wage to $10.10 an hour in three stages over two years. Activists say the most likely route to change is the public strong-arming of companies such as McDonald’s. One example gives the unions hope.

Back in June, The New York Times exposed several McDonald’s franchisees as paying staff not into regular bank accounts, but via so-called pre-paid cards in which banks charge employees fees to simply access their money. Employers were offered financial incentives by the banks to steer staff into the scheme. The story was picked up nationally. The next day, the franchisees announced they would end the practice.

When it comes to wages, there is growing recognition, unions say, and a similar nerve has been struck.

  • 1
    Posted Friday, 13 December 2013 at 12:55 pm | Permalink

    Good luck to them, but I can’t imagine this change occurring without a great deal of angst and bogus rhetoric from the ultra-right. The right of the executive elite to rob workers blind is as entrenched into the American psyche as the right to own assault weapons and 100 round clips.

  • 2
    Posted Friday, 13 December 2013 at 2:19 pm | Permalink

    It is truly depressing that the US model is one that local “conservatives” would like to adopt. I don’t have money problems now but do remember how tough it was when a youth - and that was on a reasonable minimum wage. I have absolutely no problem in paying a bit extra if I thought it went towards lowly paid employees. Even tips in some establishments are being purloined by the owners - the greedy b*stards.

  • 3
    Bill Hilliger
    Posted Friday, 13 December 2013 at 2:37 pm | Permalink

    This is what Ms Rine pfart and the Abb lot gommint wants and meant that is good for Australian businesses. The US government assists low paid Walmart employees with food stamps to supplement their low income.

  • 4
    Posted Friday, 13 December 2013 at 3:31 pm | Permalink

    Looks to me that a lot of Henry Lawson’s poetry is again becoming pertinent after more than a century.
    I commend it to the anglosphere.

  • 5
    zut alors
    Posted Friday, 13 December 2013 at 3:35 pm | Permalink

    The great divide in the US widens each year. No wonder the service is so good at food and retail outlets, the employees strive to impress while quaking in their boots for fear of losing their poorly-paid jobs.

    Four Corners did a programme on minimal wage earners in the US a couple months ago, it was an eye-opener.

    Is McDonald’s losing business due to natural causes?

  • 6
    Posted Saturday, 14 December 2013 at 12:20 am | Permalink

    The US is a disgusting example of exactly what happens when you refuse to regulate the excesses of capitalism, with the wealthy elite there building their fortunes on the skulls of the majority. The people on minimum wage literally cannot afford to feed themselves and keep a roof over their head.
    The fact that the LNP is attempting to emulate this rubbish boggles the mind, but it is obvious that this is their plan the moment you listen to their rhetoric on debt-reduction without tax increases, union-busting and scaling back welfare. They are a party with no concept of what it is like to be without total privilege, and will run the country for themselves and their kind.

  • 7
    Posted Saturday, 14 December 2013 at 7:24 am | Permalink

    The Walmart heirs have the combined wealth equivalent to that of 130 million ordinary American’s. The McResource portal and Walmart donation bins says something not only about the capitalists that support this as much for the society that puts up with it.
    Mikeb, our PM and his tea party lite followers must look upon the inequity in the USA as a blueprint for what it wishes to impose on Australian employee’s; they tried once they will do it again ably supplorted by the big end of town.
    Why do you have unions…read this and understand. Revolution now!

  • 8
    Lubo Gregor
    Posted Saturday, 14 December 2013 at 3:48 pm | Permalink

    Does anyone still believe that this will not end in a revolution? The worse yet is that such revolution will most likely result in even more ‘security’ measures imposed by the ruling class. Ah the wonderful future of cyberpunk novels becoming a reality.

    What does a person do with an income of $25.000 a day? I know, none of my business, but anyway, any ideas?

  • 9
    Posted Saturday, 14 December 2013 at 6:15 pm | Permalink

    It won’t end in revolution until people have difficulty buying the next iPhone

  • 10
    Posted Sunday, 15 December 2013 at 12:06 pm | Permalink

    It’s not before time these non-living wages need addressing. The divide between rich and poor in the US has grown steadily. While the RW nutters continue to complain about the greedy poor, while raking in billions in profit, the noise coming from this morally bereft group will be loud. Ear muffs will be required.

  • 11
    Posted Sunday, 15 December 2013 at 1:02 pm | Permalink

    Let us not forget that, had SerfChoiceless still been in force under tories when the GFC struck, it would have, inexorably, inevitably & intentionally led to amerikan shedding of excess (sic!?) labour, as dsigned.
    In the UK, the government makes up the slave level wages of 20% of employees with tax credits (thus subsidising the, mostly, multinationals of fear of greater ‘on books’ U/E. not to mention the latest abomination “zero hour contracts” which mean, in effect sero hour.
    The reason waiters chase non tippers out of US eateries is that they are usually UNWAGED!
    As a the majority of shop assistants (see the segment in Pretty Woman when Roberts returns to an upmarket boutique that had shunned her previously).
    Interesting times lay ahead.

  • 12
    Posted Sunday, 15 December 2013 at 7:31 pm | Permalink

    People can’t buy stuff if they don’t earn decent wages… The great irony of American capitalism is that if people aren’t spending their excess cash, then there’s nothing to invest-in in America. Lets hope the HR Nicholls Society is also watching intently along with Abbott and Newman…

  • 13
    Posted Monday, 16 December 2013 at 7:59 am | Permalink

    Domestic cointel is business as usual, police & corporate intels will fall over themselves in eagerness to be of use to the rich. Prediction: ‘disappointing’ disunity & dirty deeds among lowpay activists + policestate repression = token pay rise & fresh serve of shutupandforget.

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