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Blumner: The precariat and fair wages

Supporters of fast food workers march toward a McDonald’s in New York as they demand higher wages and the right to form a union.

Associated Press

Supporters of fast food workers march toward a McDonald’s in New York as they demand higher wages and the right to form a union.

McDonald's much-ridiculed sample budget for low-income workers could not have come at a better time to add grease to the fire of fast-food worker discontent now that job actions have erupted around the country.

By now people generally know that McDonald's partnered with Visa to offer advice to low-wage workers. (See Stephen Colbert's hilarious send-up.) On its "practical money skills" website, McDonald's tells workers how to make ends meet. The sample budget lists an aftertax income of $1,105 per month, about what an average full-time McDonald's worker makes after payroll taxes are deducted. Then it includes another $955 per month in net income from a second job.

On the expense side, the budget lists health insurance at $20 per month, among other absurdly low estimates, an implicit admission that even after working two full-time fast-food jobs, daily life is unaffordable.

McDonald's unhelpful budget explains a lot about a corporate mind-set that consigns its workers to poverty. A companion web video patronizingly suggests that workers stop buying gum and candy as a way to boost personal savings. This conveniently diverts the conversation away from corporate greed and toward the narrative Bill O'Reilly and other right-wing commentators push, that the poor are that way because they make irresponsible spending choices. (So don't feel guilty slashing their food stamps.)

But low-wage workers know there is only one real way to gain a financial foothold, and it has nothing to do with avoiding Chiclets for a year: Get paid better.

McDonald's public relations faux pas comes just as chain fast-food workers have been staging protests and work stoppages to demand wage increases. In New York, Chicago, St. Louis, Kansas City and other cities, some of the nation's 4 million fast-food workers are demanding a living wage of up to $15 per hour, far more than the industry-wide median of $8.94 per hour for front-line workers, and the ability to unionize without fear of reprisals.

Call it the rise of the "precariat," from "precarious," the most insecure workers in an economy and a much talked about group among labor economists, most prominently Guy Standing at the University of London. The precariat is a growing proportion of the U.S. labor market. There are more than 10 million people in the United States who work poorly paid, dead-end jobs and are in desperate need of organizing to change their circumstances.

Maybe that's what we're seeing the beginnings of now.

Their efforts deserve widespread support, even from conservatives (though they won't get it). Fast food is a highly profitable industry that relies on tax dollars to subsidize its paltry wages through food stamps, public housing and other social services that workers need to get by. Why isn't that infuriating to fiscal hawks?

The industry's excuse on wages is to claim that it provides a stepping stone to upward mobility — a whopper as big as a CEO compensation package. A July report by the National Employment Law Project found that there is exceptionally little promotion in fast food. Only 2.2 percent of jobs in the industry are managerial, professional or technical occupations, compared with 31.1 percent of jobs throughout the larger economy.

Fast-food workers have long wanted to organize but have been stymied in the past by legitimate fears of being fired. (Which is illegal but employers do it anyway.) The recent labor actions are employing a tactic known as a "walk-back." Martin Rafanan, community director of "St. Louis Can't Survive on $7.35," a campaign that refers to Missouri's minimum wage, explains that workers are walked back to their workplace following a 24-hour strike by a group of three or four community leaders. Rafanan, who is also a minister, had 30 walk-backs in St. Louis on Wednesday alone. Managers are told that if the worker is adversely affected the campaign will be back with an even larger group and public attention.

Unlike McDonald's fanciful budget, unionization offers workers a real chance for a better life. The government needs to partner with this effort by raising the minimum wage, as the president wants, and passing laws that protect workers trying to organize. In a nation as rich as ours, no one who works full time should be part of the "precariat."

Blumner: The precariat and fair wages 08/02/13 [Last modified: Friday, August 2, 2013 4:28pm]
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