Worker strikes highlight need for wage reform

On Aug. 29, fast-food workers engaged in strikes and protests in dozens of major cities across the country. This dissent reveals a growing militancy among workers in the heavily-exploited service sector. Democratic, religious and union leaders, however, are diverting this resistance to odious conditions for their own ends. Fast-food workers must instead look to their fellow workers and assert their rights independently.

The strikers are asserting their right to a living wage – $15 per hour, to be specific. The current median wage of fast-food workers is a mere $8.94 per hour, according to MSNBC, which is essentially a starvation wage. Meanwhile, the executives of these highly exploitative corporations are pulling in record profits; for example, McDonald’s CEO Jim Skinner made $8.75 million last year, according to Bloomberg. This was his justly deserved reward for the profits that McDonald’s made from their employees’ blood, sweat and grease, which was $5.5 billion, according to Yahoo Finance.

This pattern is repeated across the food services industry. According to The Guardian, McDonald’s, Wendy’s, Burger King, Taco Bell, KFC, Pizza Hut, Domino’s and Papa John’s reaped a total of $7.35 billion in profits last year, whereas most of their employees made less than $11,200.

McDonald’s and Visa – yet another corporation making millions off debt servitude – collaborated to release a budgeting guide for low-wage employees. This monthly budget, as points out, contains several wholly unreasonable aspects. Most jarringly, the budget has a line for a second job, which creates a workweek totaling 50-70 hours of hot, oily servitude. The budget leaves a measly $600 for rent, which means that cashiers – at an average age of 28 and a quarter of whom support a child – will get to share an apartment.

When the budget was first released, it included a grand total of $0 for heating costs. Any resulting health problems would supposedly be remedied using the $20 allotted for health care. This budget would be hilarious if it was a piece for The Onion, but it instead illustrates the continued appalling treatment of low-wage workers.

This is part and parcel of the post-recessional economy. Good middle-class manufacturing jobs have been eviscerated or eliminated, replaced largely with low-wage service jobs. President Barack Obama’s administration is spearheading this transition, most notably with the 2008 General Motors bailout, which included the condition that new hires’ pay would be halved. The United Auto Workers agreed to these highway-robbery conditions, illustrating the inability of unions to mount a consistent defense of workers’ rights and salaries.

Despite this recent history, the unions continue to pose as a bulwark against exploitation. The primary union organizing the strikes is the Service Employees International Union. The SEIU’s International President, Mary Kay Henry, appeared on “The Colbert Report,” where she cited the reasoning for the strike and demonstrated its necessity as well. When Stephen Colbert joked that she hates capitalism and corporations, however, she merely sidestepped the issue.

As well-paid liasons between workers and owners, union leaders’ fates are tied to the same conditions they purport to oppose. The conditions are indeed the problem, but unions are not the solution. An independent defense of working conditions and living standards is required.