Just five years ago, 56-year-old Army veteran Morris Cornley was doing more than getting by. He earned about $17 an hour as a union truck driver, a salary sufficient enough to make ends meet and have a little extra. But when the economy hit rock bottom four years ago, he lost his job and couldn’t find another. Now, he’s a delivery driver for a local Jimmy John’s gourmet sandwich shop where earns a few cents above minimum wage. It’s not how he planned it, but it’s the only job he can find.
Cornley’s story is not unique. Fast-food workers are not teenagers working for extra pocket change. Their average age is 28. A third of them have at least some college education and more than a quarter are trying to raise a family. Many are like Cornley wanting to find a better paying job, but they cannot.
Our nation’s fastest-growing job sector is also our lowest-paying sector. According to the National Employment Law Project, low-wage jobs comprised 21 percent of recession losses, but amounted to 58 percent of recovery growth in the last few years.
This is why fast-food and retail workers are taking part in a growing movementto lift wages. Last Thursday, one-day strikes in cities across the country were well-documented as were workers’ demands for predictable hours, job security, the right to form a union without intimidation and $15 an hour.
All these things are greatly needed at a time when not only are the majority of new jobs low wage but the nation faces the greatest income inequality in generations.
A report from the Yale University Institution for Social and Policy Studies confirmed that people worked harder but the benefits of that productivity concentrated at the top. Worker productivity increased by 80.4 percent since 1973, but median hourly wages grew only 10.7 percent during that same time.
Meanwhile, corporate profits boomed, executive compensation exponentially outpaced growth in worker pay and income for the richest Americans increased more than 300 percent.In a nutshell, the rich are getting richer on the backs of rank-and-file workers who are getting poorer.
Raising the wages for fast-food workers is a racial imperative as well as an economic imperative. Twenty-two percent of African American and Latino men work in low-wage jobs compared to 14 percent of white men. Among employed women, 28 percent of blacks and a third of Latinas are in low-wage service jobs, compared with 20 percent of white women.
The nation’s fundamental promise of being able to attain a middle-class lifestyle if you work hard has been broken for too many.
We need look no further than our history for greater understanding of why low-wage working people are walking off the job and, more importantly, why we need their movement to succeed. In 1963, organized labor backed the historic March on Washington and the broader civil rights movement because we believed “the fight for decent wages and working conditions will fail,” without widespread economic empowerment. Now we’re going backward. There is hope for change, however, if we shift our thinking and enact policies that reward hard work not just wealthy shareholders and corporate bosses.
Valarie Long serves as an executive vice president of the 2.1 million-member Service Employees International Union (SEIU).