McDonald’s employees and those working for other low-wage employers feel the effects of the historic levels of income inequality in the U.S.
Rev. Dr. William Barber, president of the North Carolina branch of the NAACP and one of the leaders of the Moral Mondays protests, equates the low-wage protests that have racked the fast food industry — including the May demonstration at the McDonald’s Corp. headquarters in Oak Brook, Illinois, in which 101 protesters were arrested — as the next step in the civil rights movement.
“[We] believe we have come to the threshold of the Third Reconstruction,” Barber wrote for the Huffington Post on Monday. “The McDonald’s employees take their honored places in the front lines of this movement. Injustice cannot be met with silence.”
“You cannot see injustice and say nothing. You cannot see exploitation and say nothing. You cannot see systematic poverty and say nothing. You cannot see one human being abuse another human being, God’s creation, and say nothing. At every time, in every age, we need dissenters, who speak out about injustice,” he continued.
Barber is not off-base with this. Prior to his 1968 assassination, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King started planning for his Poor People’s Campaign, stating that political gains alone cannot improve the quality of the average man’s life. Unless significant material changes are made to alleviate poverty, King argued, the disenfranchised will remain marginalized in society. King saw this as the second phase of the civil rights movement. King’s assassination, the power vacuum that ultimately formed in the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and the disastrous reaction to the SCLC’s protest in Washington — Resurrection City — contributed to the campaign’s derailment.
An attempt to indirectly reignite King’s last crusade, the fast food protests center around the use of low wages for the majority of restaurant positions at McDonald’s and other restaurants in the fast food industry. At the time of the Oak Brook protest, McDonald’s approved a compensation plan that increased its executive pay, but the vast majority of McDonald’s employees only make one or two dollars above the minimum wage.
According to Glassdoor, the average pay for a McDonald’s crewmember is $7.75 per hour in Minneapolis, for example, and $7.77 per hour in Gulfport, Mississippi. Both constitute a full-time salary that is below the 2014 Federal Poverty Guidelines for a family of three or more.
In comparison, the chief executive of McDonald’s made $9.5 million in compensation in 2013. MintPress News has previously examined profit-sharing and the compensation structures of low-wage employers. While McDonald’s, as a franchise-granter, utilizes a different financial model, the company uses compensation components similar to other major low-wage employers, such as stock buybacks and executive performance pay. This system of channeling capital into the hands of investors, stockholders and senior leadership creates the impression that there is not enough profit available to increase wages without raising prices.
“I’ve been working at Burger King for about a month and make $8.25 an hour,” said Dominque Byndom, a protester at the Oak Brook demonstration. “I worked at McDonald’s for five years and made $8.25 and never got a raise. And all I ever get to work is 24 hours a week. You just cannot survive on $8.25 an hour. I’m looking for $15 an hour and 30-plus hours each week.”
“This is our lives; I’m doing it for my kids,” Byndom continued. “I just want to be able to take care of my kids. Hopefully, we’ll wake someone up about this and get it done.”
The question of choice
Despite this, many have pointed to the notion that working at McDonald’s is at-will employment and therefore not consistent with the traditional definition of situational abuse. An example of this is La Shawn Barber’s recent article in World Magazine, in which she argued, “Low-wage jobs are not slavery or Jim Crow. Workers are paid what employers believe they’re worth and what the market bears.”
“No one is forced to work at McDonald’s,” she continued. “No one owes anyone a living, not even highly profitable corporations. That is a cold, hard fact. No one owes you health insurance. No one owes you a meal or a roof over your head.”
The sad truth, however, is that for most people working at McDonald’s or for other low-wage employers, there’s no other choice. While the number of jobs lost to the Great Recession have been mostly recovered, the jobs recovered are overwhelmingly low-quality, low-paying jobs. In an April report from the National Employment Law Project, it is estimated that while 22 percent of all Great Recession-related job losses were lower-wage occupations, 44 percent of the job recovery has been in low-skilled, low-pay jobs. In contrast, mid-wage jobs constituted 37 percent of the jobs lost and 26 percent of the jobs gained, and high-wage jobs made up 41 percent of the jobs lost and 30 percent of the jobs gained.
While there has been some growth since 2012 in the number of mid-wage jobs available, most jobs available — particularly, for those who do not have the necessary computer or science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) skills that are currently in demand — are in the quick-service food industry, customer service, janitorial and custodial services, or clerical services, which all rank on the lowest end of the pay scale. With many local and state governments actively cutting back the “social safety net” and scaling back both emergency financial assistance and job training, many are forced to put up with inadequate wages in an attempt to care for their families.
The public burden
Low wages paid by McDonald’s and other companies actually add to the public burden in the sense that it becomes society’s obligation to make up the difference between what low-wage employers are willing to pay their employees and the minimum these employees need to survive. Health coverage for these workers and their dependents, nutritional and housing subsidies, and social services coverage all take needed capital out of local and state government coffers — capital that could be used to improve infrastructure, add new teachers to the schools or pay down government debt.
It is generally believed that because of employee costs and government overhead, it takes the government significantly more monetarily to raise an employee’s standard of living to the minimum requirement than it would take for the employer to simply raise the employees’ wages in the first place. This removal of the burden of requiring employers to provide their employees a minimum guarantee of security has been seen as a form of “corporate welfare,” as it actively seeks to protect corporate profits at the expense of the public taxbase.
While discussions to compel businesses to pay a living wage have stalled on the national stage, local and state governments — entities that are more likely to be forced to deal with the consequences of this notion of “corporate welfare” — have taken the lead in forcing responsibility. Earlier this week, the Seattle City Council approved a multi-year plan that would eventually raise the city’s minimum wage to the highest in the nation — $15 per hour ($31,200 per year for full-time work). With income inequality in the U.S. at one of its worst levels in the nation’s history — the average chief executive earns 257 times more than the average worker — efforts like those seen in Seattle may be the first step in restoring the middle class.
This message has not been lost on McDonald’s. Caught in the vortex of a negative PR storm, the company’s CEO Don Thompson has acknowledged that the McDonald’s Corp. would support a national bill raising the minimum wage to $10.10 per hour ($21,008 per year for full-time work). McDonald’s has been previously criticized for giving financial advice to its workers, including advice that they should get a second job or not turn on the heat at home.
In 2012, it was estimated that if the minimum wage had been adjusted regularly to keep pace with inflation and workplace productivity, in keeping with its intended worth when first introduced, it would have stood at $21.72 per hour in 2012. At a quarter of the current rate of production, the minimum wage should be $12.25 per hour.