By James McCusker Herald Columnist
Recent strikes by fast food workers are serving up some of most interesting, important and intractable, issues in our economy.
Thus far, the numbers of workers involved have not been huge. On the Kardashian-Weiner Algorithmic Scale the strikes hardly move the needle. The numbers simply aren’t there yet — your average surfer riot in California gets a bigger turnout — but that doesn’t change one important fact: The issues simply will not go away.
The striking workers in New York want their wages to double. Some of them are currently working at the federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour and want that raised to $15. The math is a little fuzzy, but in the ballpark, and the general idea is that they want a “living wage” that will allow them to support themselves in today’s large American cities, which can be about double the federal minimum.
Math isn’t the only fuzzy aspect of these strikes. There is also an identity issue. The strikes are backed by unions, but the workers generally are not union members, which raises some interesting questions about what, if any, labor laws would apply to their actions.
Most of the striking workers appear to be members of “worker centers” but exactly what status a worker center has, legally or economically, remains pretty vague. Their standing under our labor laws is anything but clear. This can be very important when it comes to which activities are protected under the law and which are not.
Generally speaking, the centers operate as advocates rather than representatives, but when they begin to discuss specific wage rate proposals with employers only our legal system and legislatures can determine where the lines and rules are or should be.
Members of Congress have already taken an interest in worker centers, and have asked Secretary of Labor Thomas Perez to clarify the issue. It seems unlikely that he will be able to do so definitively, though. Worker centers are operating for the most part in a world of labor organization that is new territory, unchartered and uncharted by existing labor laws.
Worker centers are a fairly recent development in the labor movement. Twenty years ago there were only five in the United States; today there are close to two hundred.
In their early years, many of the worker centers were organized and sponsored by churches and religious groups to help new immigrants with their entry into the labor force. Immigrants and entry-level labor are still the focus of worker centers but some of them have matured into nation-wide organizations.
Beginning in 2006, the AFL-CIO began to form partnerships and affiliations with worker centers, which clarified the labor union’s position on this but left many questions unanswered. The AFL-CIO’s recognition and affiliation with worker centers, in fact, led some to believe that worker centers were a sort of stealth union, securing the beach head for organized labor.
Oddly enough, the question of whether or not the worker centers are stealth unions is not as important as it might seem at first. Whatever they are, they are here to stay because they serve a purpose. Portions of our economy, especially in food production and the hospitality industry, have an unhealthy dependence on a large, entry-level wage labor force. The prolonged recession-like jobs picture has aggravated the inadequacies of that wage level to support working men and women, especially in our high-cost cities.
What the unions and the worker centers want for the workers is a “living wage,” which has a definition that satisfies no one. This is not surprising; we have been arguing about this since the nineteenth century.
Essentially, though, a living wage is now defined at the low end as a wage that will allow a worker to support himself or herself in the community, including food, housing and transportation to work. At the high end, it is the wage needed to support a family of four; two adults and two children, with all the trimmings.
Living wage advocates find themselves in opposition to those who believe that the free market for labor should determine wages. The truth is that left to their own devices, both sides are destructively wrong and it is left to those in our society who can successfully combine economics, common sense and common decency to make the system work for everyone’s benefit.
On the big map of events the recent fast food strikes are barely a speck, but it points to simmering issues of wage disparities and income inequality in our economy that remain unresolved and largely unaddressed. What balance would be best for economic growth and for America; and how could we make it so, without wrecking the economy or undermining our values?
James McCusker is a Bothell economist, educator and consultant. He also writes a monthly column for the Herald Business Journal.