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Public Employee Press
FAST FOOD WORKERS FIGHT
By GREGORY N. HEIRES
Just as the commandment, 'Thou shalt not kill,' sets a limit to safeguard the value of human life, today we also have to say, 'Thou shalt not,' to an economy of exclusion and inequality. Such an economy kills — Pope Francis
That evening, Dec. 5, about 1,000 workers rallied in New York City's Foley Square, where they expressed hope for a better life under Mayor-elect Bill de Blasio, whose progressive "tale of two cities" campaign focused on the sharp income inequality in the world's financial capital. After the rally, the protestors marched to Zuccotti Park, birthplace of the Occupy Wall Street protest movement.
Obama's speech, de Blasio's victory and the year-long protests of the fast-food workers are potent signs of the lasting impact of Occupy Wall Street's success in making the country's great economic divide — the 1 percent versus the 99 percent — part of our national discourse. After decades of economic malaise, with American inequality close to that of poorer countries like Jamaica and Argentina, we can no longer ignore the danger it poses to our democracy and living standards.
"It is exciting to see the growth of the fast-food workers movement," said DC 37 Executive Director Lillian Roberts. "Workers have been taking it on the chin for too long."
A grassroots campaign
De Blasio embraced the fast-food workers.
"I stand with the working men and women in the Fast Food Forward movement who are on strike for a livable wage and fair benefits. While the fast-food industry rakes in billions every year, it refuses to pay its workers enough to provide for themselves or their families," he said.
During his campaign, de Blasio pressed his plan to tax incomes over $500,000 to fund universal pre-kindergarten and said he aims to have the city's living wage law cover more businesses and expand the mandatory sick pay law to cover 300,000 more private-sector workers.
The rally was sponsored by the New Day New York Coalition of community groups, low-wage worker organizers and unions. The city's 300,000 public employees — who are working under expired contracts after four years without a raise under billionaire Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg — hope for a fairer labor policy under de Blasio.
Workers at the protest spoke movingly of their struggle to get by on low-wage salaries.
Shareeka Eliot, a Kennedy Airport worker, spoke about of the difficulty of supporting two young kids on $7.25 an hour.
"I am relying on public assistance," Eliot said. Low wages and nonexistent benefits at the 10 largest U.S. fast-food companies cost taxpayers about $4 billion a year for safety net programs such as food stamps and Medicaid, according to the National Employment Law Project — in effect, a subsidy to their wealthy employers.
Speaker Iris Velasquez is organizing her coworkers at Dylan's Candy Bar, an upscale boutique owned by the billionaire daughter of designer Ralph Lauren.
"My employer is the fifth richest heiress in the world — wealthier than Oprah," Velasquez said. "We don't even get enough hours to live on. We have no paid sick days. No health insurance. I am fighting for a living wage and most importantly, dignity and respect for all working people."
Speakers warned that change won't happen without persistent grassroots pressure. "We have to hold elected officials' feet to the fire to make it happen," Local 372 President Santos Crespo Jr. told the protesters.
"The city is moving in a more progressive direction," said Letitia James, who was elected public advocate in November with DC 37's support. "The power lies in your hands."
In his Dec. 4 speech on inequality and economic mobility, Obama laid out how the economy is failing to meet the needs of workers like fast-food employees, whose plight he mentioned. He noted that while productivity is up 90 percent since 1979, the income of the typical family has only increased 8 percent. And nearly half of full-time workers and 80 percent of part-time workers have no pension plan or retirement account, and half of all households have no retirement savings.
The falling minimum wage
Hopefully, leaders like Obama and de Blasio will create the political climate for public policies to help the millions of Americans who are a paycheck away from not being able to pay their bills.
Increasing the federal minimum wage is the first obvious step to halt the fall in our living standards. Obama noted that the minimum wage, compared with today's prices, is below what it was more than a half century ago.
Today, the minimum wage of $15,080 isn't enough to keep a family of three above the poverty line of $18,776, according to the Economic Policy Institute. Some states — including California, Connecticut, Rhode Island and New Jersey have raised their minimums.
Is the $15-an-hour goal of fast-food workers irrational idealism?
Let's hope not. It's not in the city of SeaTac, Wash., which recently approved a minimum wage of $15 per hour.