Tomorrow, what could potentially be the largest fast-food employee strike yet will take place in cities around the country. Work stoppages are planned in New York, Chicago, Detroit, and other cities—as many as 35 in all. And, for the first time, the Service Employees International Union is calling on workers in Los Angeles to walk off of the job. Coming a day after the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington—originally billed as the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom—and four days before Labor Day, the strike will be sandwiched by dates fraught with significance in terms of both racial and economic equality.
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. is the figure most strongly tied to the March on Washington, but it was a labor leader and social democrat, A. Philip Randolph, who organized the historic event. And before Dr. King told the more than 200,000 gather on the National Mall “about the dream,” as Mahlia Jackson famously implored him to do, the organizers of the march settled on demands that were far more concrete than King’s indelible, lyrical description of equality.
“One of the demands highlighted by the march’s leaders and organizers was to raise the federal minimum wage—then $1.15 an hour—to $2,” Harold Meyerson wrote in a Washington Post column today. “According to Sylvia Allegretto and Steven Pitts of the Economic Policy Institute, that comes out to $13.39 today.”
That’s just $1.61 less than the $15 fast-food workers are demanding as a base wage.
The Economic Policy Institute also finds in the same report, “To Work With Dignity,” that “Female and black workers would particularly benefit from an increase in the minimum wage,” and that Latinos “would be disproportionately affected by a higher minimum wage,” too.
In an 1986 Washington Post story about fast-food work, “The Fast-Food Factories: McJobs are Bad for Kids,” Amitai Etzini wrote, “Some say that while these jobs are rather unsuited for college-bound, white, middle-class youngsters, they are ‘ideal’ for lower-class, ‘non-academic,’ minority youngsters.”
That prophecy has become reality in some ways, but the fast-food industry not only employs a significant number of minority workers (bilingual picket signs are a feature of nearly every strike), but it also comprises a predominately female workforce, with the average age of over 29. An older workforce means that the low wages in the industry—the average hourly pay in 2012 was $8.78, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics—have to not only cover rent and food, but potentially childcare and the other expenses that come along with parenthood.
The federal minimum wage was eventually raised to $2, although not until 11 years after the March. But as the EPI report notes, “the real value—the actual purchasing power of the minimum wage adjusted for price changes over time—has fallen,” in the years since Dr. King spoke at the Washington Mall. Furthermore, income inequality between black and white Americans has increased dramatically—nearly tripling in the past 25 years, according to a report published by Brandeis University earlier this year. As a moment in time, the March on Washington may be a relic of history, but the need for jobs and freedom—economic and racial—remains a frustratingly contemporary issue.
Part of the Strike Kit featured on the lowpayisnotok.org, one of the non-union groups involved in organizing tomorrow’s work stoppage, is a letter that striking employees are asked to sign and deliver to their bosses. The closing lines of letter read, “We are sick of making poverty wages and living on food stamps, in shelters, on family’s couches and not being able to provide for our children as hard as we work.”
So tomorrow, thousands of such workers will go on strike.