Saturday, May 18, 2013 | 2 a.m.
“Great Gatsby,” meet Raise Up Milwaukee. And New York. And Chicago. And St. Louis. And Detroit.
How ironic that while the film is recreating a past era of excess and greed, employees in the fast-food and retail industries across the country are engaging in unprecedented strikes over today’s flow of wealth from working people to the rich.
In the past month, hundreds upon hundreds of fast-food and retail workers walked off the job in five major cities, including, most recently, Milwaukee, where hundreds of workers went on strike Wednesday at major national brands such as McDonald’s, Burger King, Wendy’s, Taco Bell, Denny’s and Foot Action. These historic, one-day strikes follow a similar walkout on last fall’s Black Friday shopping day by workers at Wal-Mart.
What has motivated workers with no job security to draw a line and tell some of the world’s richest corporations that enough is enough?
As in Gatsby’s time, the rich are partying like there is no tomorrow, at working people’s expense. One in four American workers is paid less than $10 per hour, well below the poverty line. These include people who prepare food, stock warehouses, staff customer service centers, and care for children, the sick and the elderly.
Sub-poverty wage levels have helped fuel the growth in average CEO pay that is now 354 times the average worker’s — up from 42 times in 1982. Corporate cash reserves and the stock market are at an all-time high.
With the average Wal-Mart salesperson making only $8.81 per hour, the six heirs to the Wal-Mart fortune have pocketed about $100 billion in wealth — more than the least well-off 41 percent of Americans combined.
McDonald’s raked in $5.5 billion in profits in 2012 while Yum Brands — which includes KFC, Taco Bell and Pizza Hut — took home $1.6 billion in profits.
With government failing to act and corporations succeeding in keeping out unions, the Robin-Hood-in-reverse economy — taking from workers to give to the rich — is steadily getting worse. A majority of jobs created in the economic recovery have been in low-wage industries. Unless pay levels are raised, 7 out of 10 growth occupations over the next decade will be low-wage positions, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
So what do participants in the Raise Up Milwaukee campaign, and their counterparts in other cities, want? A basic wage of $15 per hour and the right to form unions without corporate interference and intimidation. They understand that big corporations in the service industries can afford to pay more but that these companies won’t do so unless workers join together and demand wages that support families. Like workers have through U.S. history, they are turning to unions to help solve a low-wage problem that is dragging our entire economy down.
Raises and the right to form unions would shift money back to working families for basic necessities instead of sending it off to distant corporate headquarters to pad profits for executives and Wall Street stockholders. That shift, in turn, would help support small businesses and jobs in local communities.
The National Restaurant Association argues that the restaurant industry provides opportunities for millions of Americans, women and men from all backgrounds, to move up the ladder and succeed. But the problem for executives in low-wage industries is that increasing numbers of working people can see that this promise is simply not true today, as it was not in Gatsby’s era.
Working people have seen how today’s economic storyline plays out, and they are willing to risk their jobs to flip the script.
Dorian T. Warren is a fellow at the Roosevelt Institute and an associate professor of political science and public affairs at Columbia University.