Low-wage workers deserve a better deal
By Doug Wingeier • Columnist
Debate is picking up these days on help for the unemployed and low-wage workers. Congress is balking on extending unemployment compensation. The media and public are going back and forth on raising the minimum wage. The Coalition of Immokalee Workers in Florida are demanding (and often getting) a penny more per pound for the tomatoes they pick. And fast food and big box employees are taking matters into their own hands by going out on strike to demand better wages and working conditions.
The emergency unemployment insurance program for the long-term unemployed expired on Dec. 28, leaving 1.5 million unfortunate folk in the lurch. Since it was implemented in 2008, more than 24 million Americans have received these benefits, which have helped them to pay rent, feed their children, and keep the lights on. In addition to the 1.3 million who stopped receiving benefits last month, if the program isn’t extended, an additional 3.6 million will lose access to this vital lifeline by the end of 2014. This program doesn’t just help the long-term unemployed. Failing to extend it would also be a huge drain on the economy, eliminating an estimated additional 240,000 jobs.
Democrats are proposing an 11-month extension, retroactive to Dec. 15, to be paid for with future spending cuts, mostly from Medicare providers. But who knows whether Republicans in either Senate or House will go along? Such an extension of benefits would help the economy now, and the cuts down the line would not undermine our still shaky economic recovery. The need is urgent, but will Congress once again put politics before people?
The minimum wage is currently a measly $7.25 per hour — only $2.13 for tipped workers. When I talk with workers in stores and restaurants about their pay and working conditions, they pretty consistently say they can’t live on what they’re getting. The last figures I’ve seen list the average yearly income for restaurant workers at $15,000, while the average for all private sector workers is three times that amount. Add to this the all-too-common illegal practice of “wage theft” —paying below the minimum, keeping back tips, not paying overtime, forcing work off the clock, withholding final paychecks, etc. Workers, particularly if they’re undocumented, fear losing their jobs if they speak up. We must take care that such things are not happening locally.
I recently heard on You Tube an actual phone conversation between a 10-year McDonald’s employee and the “McHelp” line, during which she was advised to seek help from food pantries, soup kitchens, Medicaid and food stamps if she couldn’t make ends meet on her $8.25 per hour wage. In other words, the fast food industry deliberately deprives employees of what they need and deserve, expecting taxpayers and charities to make up the difference.
The minimum wage hasn’t been raised since 2009 and hasn’t kept pace with the cost of living. The wage for tipped workers hasn’t been raised for 22 years. Eighty percent get no paid sick leave, forcing them to go to work sick, creating a major public health menace. How would you like to be served by a waitperson suffering from the flu?
A bipartisan bill was introduced in Congress last year to raise the minimum to $10.10 per hour in stages to 2015, and the tipped wage to 70 percent of that. It got nowhere, so must be introduced again. Already 21 states require a minimum wage higher than the federal — but not North Carolina. This time let’s get it done. In fact, what we really need is a “living wage” enough pay to live respectably ($15 per hour plus benefits?). And since, on average, women receive only 70 percent of what men are paid, an equal-pay-for-equal-work provision is also imperative. “Laborers are worthy of their hire.”
Our economy cannot grow when people lack the money to buy the consumer goods we produce. Instead, it spirals down in a vicious cycle of low wages, outsourced jobs, foreclosed mortgages, loss of homes, declining purchasing power, shrinking of the middle class, fewer goods sold — and the cycle goes on. At the same time, tax cuts for the rich as supposed “job creators” is a myth. They can only spend so much, and just salt away the rest — much of it in offshore bank accounts that pay no U.S. taxes.
The Florida Immokalee Workers have come up with a partial solution. For the past decade they have been pressuring the tomato growers — and the fast food and grocery chains behind them — to pay them a penny more per pound picked. My wife and I visited their office and toured their worksites several years ago, were much impressed with their organization and commitment and have supported them ever since. Together with a coalition of churches, students, pro-bono attorneys and community groups, they have staged marches, pickets, ad campaigns and nationwide boycotts.
The results have been remarkable. Six cases of worker slavery (workers locked in shipping containers, papers confiscated, wages withheld, let out in the daytime only to work) have so far been successfully prosecuted, with the offending growers now in jail. Taco Bell (and parent company Yum Brands), McDonald’s, Burger King, Subway, Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s have so far signed on. Over $10 million has thus far been paid into the fund for distribution to the workers. But Krogers, Publix, and Wendy’s are still holding out, and pressure continues to get them to do the right thing. If you are a fast food fan and want to help, patronize the “good guys” and boycott the holdouts.
Finally, during the recent holiday season, underpaid workers in places in the McDonald’s and WalMart chains, at considerable personal risk, have staged a minor rebellion through wildcat strikes and walkouts to protest low wages, no health insurance, gender discrimination, shifting schedules, reduced hours, intimidation and pink slips. The median hourly wage for fastfood workers is $8.94, mostly with no benefits. They average only 24 hours a week, adding up to $11,000 a year in gross pay. Nationwide, the average Walmart associate makes just $8.81/hour. Hundreds of thousands live below the poverty line, while together, the Walmart heirs have greater net worth than the bottom 100 million Americans combined. (That’s us!)
To address this situation, advocates for worker justice invite us consumers to join in what they call the “Lilliput strategy” — taking a cue from the little folk in Jonathan Swift’s old novel, Gulliver’s Travels, who together immobilized the big giant by tying him down with hundreds of tiny knots. Joining with students, community agencies, faith-based organizations and the workers themselves, we can protest inequities, boycott the exploiters, patronize fair merchants, pay generous tips, promote local legislation requiring governments and their suppliers to pay a living wage and urge Congress to raise the federal minimum wage. Lilliputians unite! It’s time to start closing the appalling rich-poor gap before our democracy disappears before our eyes.