For many Americans, the only connection between Labor Day and labor is that you don’t have to do any of the latter as a result of the former. In other words, it’s just a day off work — an occasion to barbecue or go out of town for a three-day weekend.
But millions of Americans are still fighting labor struggles. And this year, one group of them won a big victory just in time for Labor Day.
Fast food workers have been striking for years now for the right to bargain collectively with their employers. Unionizing is a struggle because many chains are franchises, so the workers deal with their franchisee employers instead of with the parent company.
Now, thanks to an August ruling by the National Labor Relations Board, employees who unionize can bargain directly with the parent corporation. That should come as a relief to workers as well as franchise owners, whose hands are often tied by the corporate policies of major chains.
A major demand of these workers is a living wage.
Despite the common stereotype that fast-food restaurants are run by teenagers, more than half of these employees are adults with a high school diploma or more. More than a quarter of them are raising children, too.
A full-time worker earning the federal minimum wage now earns just over $15,000 a year. Imagine raising a family on that income and you’ll know the real cost of a cheap burger.
But those poverty wages are good business for a few at the top. Each time a shareholder reaps dividends or a CEO takes home an enormous paycheck, they’re reaping the benefits of fast food workers’ low wages.
For example, in 2012, McDonald’s shareholders got $6 billion in stock repurchases and dividends. If the company had spent that money on employee wages, it could have paid an extra $14,286 per restaurant worker.
Instead, McDonald’s gave its employees budgeting advice. One of their suggestions: Get a second job.
Opponents of a living wage counter that publicly traded corporations are required to earn as much as possible for their shareholders, and McDonald’s did exactly that. But it did so on the backs of the very people it relies on every day.
There’s something very wrong with this system.
If fast food workers organize and threaten their employers with lost profits — for example by striking, as they did last April — they could change the equation. Maybe then fast food companies would see paying workers a living wage as an essential component of running their businesses.
Thanks to the labor board ruling, it just might get easier for workers to make that point.