“I’m doing this for my future, for my sons, to have a union,” Jamine Izquierdo says, holding up a sign demanding a better wage outside a McDonald’s restaurant on 8th Avenue and 56th Street in New York on Sept. 4. Izquierdo has worked at a different Manhattan McDonald’s fast food restaurant for eight years, she says, and earns just $8.20 an hour. That wage leaves workers like Isquierdo pretty much below the poverty line anywhere in the United States, but it is an especially painful wage in a city like New York, a metropolis increasingly consigned to tourists and millionaires. That $8.20 an hour leaves behind each month “a lot of bills, a lot of problems,” she says, shaking her head.
The New York protests were a small part of the nationwide fast-food workers strike, an effort coordinated with nonunion fast food workers, civil society groups such as “Fast Food Forward” and “Fight for $15” and national unions. Scores of demonstrators in different cities were arrested after committing acts of civil disobedience in a change of strategy for the campaign. It was the seventh such cross country effort that over the last two years has drawn attention to the predicament of the nation’s low wage workers. Like thousands of workers across the United States who picketed fast food restaurants in more than 100 cities this morning, Izquierdo complains that there is no way for her to get by and care for her two boys on minimum wage, currently $7.25, or near minimum wage salaries. Worse, she says, like most of the other employees at her franchise, Izquierdo has been unable to get the full-time hours she has requested. The owner of her franchise puts her on the work schedule just four days a week.
Many who argue that setting wages is best left up “to the market” may want to keep in mind what Izquierdo says next. Asked how she can possibly get by in New York on the $180 a week she earns at McDonald's, Izquierdo explains that the government has stepped in where her weekly wage fails her. Izquierdo and her two boys live in a Section 8 apartment and qualify for federal nutrition support programs and Medicaid. In other words taxpayers are keeping her and her small family above water—barely—while she goes to work each week for one of the most profitable fast-food corporations in the world. And lest anyone argue that Izquierdo works not for a vast corporation but for a mom and pop franchise, she points out that her boss is the owner of 32 McDonald’s sites in Manhattan.
“He likes to put the money into his pocket and not give it to the workers,” she says with a small smile.
A plainclothes security operative hired by McDonald's to stand by while the demonstration unfolds outside the restaurant regards the protestors not unkindly, though he explains his presence is intended to keep anyone from interfering with sales inside the franchise. Though scores of protestors were arrested around the country and many were arrested earlier in the day for blocking traffic in Times Square, he says this demonstration had passed without incident from his perspective, adding, “You know, I feel for these people, I really do.”
While the federal government hasn't changed the minimum wage in years—a lapse that is reflected in the minimum wage’s historically diminished purchasing power—23 states and Washington, D.C., have already set higher local minimums. Seattle is set to raise its minimum wage to $15 an hour by 2018; Chicago to $13 by 2018 and San Diego to $11.50 by 2017.
In their 2014 Labor Day message, U.S. bishops supported policies and institutions that “create decent jobs, pay just wages, and support family formation and stability” as a means to honor the dignity of workers. They argued that raising the minimum wage was among the measure that “would be good places to start.”
Father Clete Kiley, a priest of the Archdiocese of Chicago who currently works as director of immigration policy for UNITE HERE, the hotel, restaurant and textile workers’ union, in Washington, D.C., was an interested observer to the innovative labor campaign. His union was not directly involved, other large national unions were—but he points out that the movement has the potential to affect far more people than the workers at fast food restaurants. According to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, just over 25 percent of U.S. workers can be described as “low pay”—earning less than two-thirds of the median wage—the highest incidence of low-pay work among the 26 countries surveyed and far higher than the O.E.C.D. average of 16.3 percent.
“Clearly they’re laying out an issue that is bigger than McDonald’s and other [fast food] places,” Father Kiley says. “It’s all about living wages."
And wage justice is a significant issue for U.S. Catholics, he adds. “Folks are working harder and they are falling farther behind; they are working multiple jobs and cannot even work full-time. Our tradition talks about a living [just] wage; we don’t even talk about a minimum wage.
“We are nowhere near a living wage and that is [a concern] that we as a church bring to the table constantly.” Catholic social teaching talks about a just wage, and “by that we mean a wage that allows workers to support a family, that allows them to put something aside for their future and have adequate health care.”
Father Kiley adds, “Pope Francis has used this phrase a number of times, he’s talked about ‘an economy that kills.’” The pope is not necessarily speaking metaphorically, Father Kiley argues, citing the case of Maria Fernandes, a 32-year-old Newark woman found dead after she napped in her car while waiting for a shift to begin at one of the four part-time jobs she held down. Police report she succumbed to a deadly mixture of carbon monoxide and fumes from an overturned gasoline container.
“Pope Francis is also speaking globally,” Father Kiley says. “People are dying crossing oceans to find work, and people at our own borders are dying in the desert because of the way the economic structure is setup. They have to find a way to make a living and they are dying in the process.”