UPDATED: National Strike Seeks $15 'Living' Wage

“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.

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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.”

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J Cosgrove
4 years 1 month ago
The problem is that there is not enough work for everyone. I wish I could find it but someone about a year ago estimated that there was enough work in the world to support 4.5 billion people and we have 7 billion people.
There is enough food for everyone but not enough meaningful work. The main stay has been agriculture but now there are places where one machines will replace a thousand workers in the fields.
Forcing people to pay a certain wage will not work because economics drives most of the decisions and this interferes in the supply/demand equation and profitability. Each increase in wages will at best keep the status quo as far as workers. As an example, fast food and some restaurants are moving to kiosk ordering which will eliminate a large percentage of the jobs in food service. My favorite sandwich place is Wawa where I walk in, go to the computer screen and special order each sandwich. There are thousands of possible combinations and a few minutes later after getting my order slip I pay and I pick it up and leave. Applebees is experimenting with putting a tablet on each table and then placing your order from the tablet. Someone brings you your food and later you can add coffee and dessert. See what the future of a fast food hamburger joint is http://givemeliberty01.com/2014/09/04/heres-the-burger-flipping-robot-that-could-put-fast-food-workers-out-of-a-job/ The kiosk eliminate the human interface in ordering process and this eliminates the back end. You will pay with your smart phone and may never see a human. Better food at lower prices and faster. I would suggest that people deal with this than having the reflex reaction of forcing people to pay higher salaries which at best clouds the real issue and how best to deal with it. And it is not just food service. It will be everywhere. See http://english.cntv.cn/2014/09/05/VIDE1409861520229904.shtml
Someone said a few years ago that manufacturing will come back to the US but don't expect typical manufacturing jobs as most will be done by robots. We can design robots as well as the Chinese.
People are getting all out of joint at the wrong issues. And then there will be designer kids which will make this issue look trivial.
Bill Mazzella
4 years 1 month ago
J, You helped no one with your comment. Thanks for nothing. Right now there are people at McDonalds, Burger King and the like. Give them a living wage. Then we will see how they manage. I understand you are for the 1 percent.
J Cosgrove
4 years 1 month ago
I think you should refrain from personalizing your comments and issuing ad hominems. If you disagree with what someone says, then respond with logic and evidence. Ad hominems says I have no evidence. As far as the 1% are concerned, I am neither for or against them per se but they tend to overwhelmingly vote Democratic and support such liberal causes such as abortion. Their money tends to be invested more in risky ventures which are usually necessary for growth and growth is what will help the poor. Unfortunately the current government has fostered a policy of printing money, of which most goes to the 1% and makes them richer. The Federal Reserve has printed more than 6 trillion dollars since Obama became president. It has done little for the poor but it certainly has made the 1% who support Obama very rich. http://www.cnbc.com/id/49726054#. http://sunlightfoundation.com/blog/2011/12/13/the-political-one-percent-of-the-one-percent/ Who do you think Obama is visiting on all of his 400+ fund raisers? http://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/obama-extends-long-term-trend-of-fundraising-presidents/2014/07/26/668cda78-14d8-11e4-9285-4243a40ddc97_story.html http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/the-fix/wp/2014/07/16/president-obama-has-held-393-fundraisers-in-his-six-years-in-office/

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