Go to any McDonald's, Burger King or any other fast-food restaurant and you'll see harried, industrious workers whose low pay is not commensurate with their efforts. Their counterparts in New York, Chicago, Washington, Detroit and an increasing number of smaller cities having been holding one-day strikes in recent weeks to draw attention to their low, stagnant wages. Their case for better treatment is a strong one.
The average wage for a fast-food worker is roughly $9 an hour, which is not a living wage, especially for a worker with a family. While that is higher than the $7.25 federal minimum wage, that is no satisfaction, as the minimum wage should be about $10 an hour if inflation and the increase in average wages over the past 50 years were factored in. Democratic efforts to raise the minimum wage to that level are stalled in Congress. The fast-food workers are pushing for raises to $15 an hour, which may be unrealistic, but a hike to $10-$11 an hour should not be considered out of bounds.
The fast-food giants assert that they operate on a narrow profit margin and cannot pay higher wages, but this claim must be taken on faith. What is certain is that the corporations are profitable enough to hand out huge salaries to top executives.
McDonald's CEO James Skinner was paid $8.8 million in 2012, and according to Bloomberg Business Week, it would take a McDonald's employee making $8.25 an hour 1.1 million hours to earn that salary, or more than 550 years of the not-quite-full-time work such restaurants usually provide. David Novak, the CEO of Yum Brands, which owns Taco Bell, Pizza Hut and KFC, was paid $11.3 million in 2012. Papa John's CEO John Schnatter, who complained that the Affordable Care Act would cause him to raise pizza prices and/or reduce the hours of employees until the bad publicity he generated caused him to back off, made $3.2 million in 2012.
Fast-food workers are also at the mercy of local franchise-holders, who too often close restaurants with no more notice than a sign posted on the door for suddenly unemployed workers to read when they show up for work. They are then left to scramble to pay bills with unemployment checks that are a fraction of their small salaries.
None of the nation's estimated 200,000 fast-food workers are unionized, but the Service Employees International Union, which is mobilizing workers for the one-day walk-outs, knows what a force they could be. Unions aside, the workers deserve better pay and should expect federal officials to crack down on abuses of labor laws that enable corporations to deny them overtime and benefits. For the first time, they are collectively making their voices heard, and corporations, politicians and average Americans had best listen.