Terry Gilliam's new film, "The Zero Theorem" will be familiar to his fans.
Union organizers say a series of rolling one-day walkouts by fast food workers in seven U.S. cities constitute the single largest employee action in the history of the industry.
Thousands of workers from two dozen chains are calling for the right to unionize and higher wages — $15 an hour.
That’s twice what many workers in the industry currently make, and well above the current median rate of $9.05 per hour.
The campaign started in New York about eight months ago. It’s backed by workers groups and has received millions of dollars from the Service Employees International Union (SEIU).
Critics of the labor action say the workers should get another job if they don’t like their current one.
Economists including David Neumark say the demands may be unrealistic. He told Here & Now that a sharp rise in wages would have some benefits, but it would also lead to some job losses.
Rasheen Aldridge, a striking worker currently employed at Jimmy Johns in St. Louis, says employees can’t live on $7 or $8 dollars an hour. He wants a living wage and a union.
Cinnamon Tigner works at Wendy’s in St. Louis, and told Here & Now, “A union is very important because you will feel protected. You feel your job is in jeopardy every day you go to work. Not having a union is like not having a stable life.”
ROBIN YOUNG, HOST:
The Wall Street Journal called today's jobs reports steady but tepid, 162,000 jobs added last month. Unemployment dropped a bit, but the number of hours worked and the average pay also dropped slightly. And these numbers come as thousands of food industry workers end a series of rolling one-day strikes.
(SOUNDBITE OF POLITICAL PROTEST)
UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Chanting) We can't survive on $7.25. We can't survive on $7.25.
YOUNG: You've probably heard about these walkouts or maybe seen managers flipping burgers or manning the takeout window at your local chain. It's a campaign that started about eight months ago. It's backed by workers' groups and millions of dollars from the Service Employees International Union. The goal is to activate workers at hundreds of restaurants from some two dozen chains to call for higher wages and the ability to unionize.
In a few minutes we'll hear from workers in St. Louis, but first we turn to an economist who looks at the numbers and studies the effects of wage increases. David Neumark is the director of the Center for Economics & Public Policy at the University of California, Irvine. He joins us from the NPR studios in Washington.
And professor, the current median wage in the industry is $9.05 an hour. Workers are asking for $15 an hour. You say what?
DAVID NEUMARK: I say it's extraordinarily unlikely that they would get anything like that, and if we're really talking about something like a legislated minimum wage going up to $15 an hour. That's even less likely, if that's possible, and although we don't have experience with minimum wage increases of that order. That is more than doubling the federal minimum wage. I think most people would regard it as extraordinarily risky.
YOUNG: Tell us more about that because the question is could businesses like McDonald's do it? We see, although they had not the earnings they wanted recently, but these are huge international corporations. Why can't they pay their workers more?
NEUMARK: It's not a question of why can they or why can't they. I mean, we can look at that and say geez, they're making a lot of money, why don't they share it with others. The bottom line is no one can force them to because they're going to ultimately respond to the incentives that the law creates. If you push up wages on low-skilled workers, we could say they could absorb that in profits, and they probably could, but they don't have to.
And what they're going to do is respond to those higher labor costs and economize on the use of now more expensive labor.
YOUNG: It sounds like you're saying that the cost of your fast food will go up.
NEUMARK: That's right. There's - I don't think anybody disputes that qualitatively. There's some debate, not really based on much evidence, about the magnitude of that effect. Price is important in the fast food industry. I would venture to guess that if McDonald's costs more than going to a restaurant and sitting down and getting table service with your burger and fries, not many people would go to McDonald's.
YOUNG: Well, staying with cities and states and what government might require, these workers are pointing out that in effect most of them work one or two jobs at these fast food restaurants and also qualify for government programs like food stamps, rent subsidy programs because of the little that they make. So in effect, isn't public money subsidizing these private employers? Isn't public money making it possible for these private places to pay so little? Doesn't that give states the right to demand more from these employers?
NEUMARK: Well, let me avoid the issue of right. Let me talk about the merits of doing it or not. It is true - if a worker earns low wages, low earnings and - an important and - is in a low-income family, that person and his or her family is typically entitled to some kind of federal benefits.
I think there's two things to point out. First of all, many low-wage workers, and this is also true in the fast food restaurant sector, are not in low-income families. Many of them are in fact teenagers. So one of the problems you always face in thinking about solving this problem is how do we target low-income families.
Now, back to the question of should state governments, federal governments or even city government say, well, you should pay more because why should we, why should the taxpayers, be paying it, but somebody is paying anyway, right. I mean, the distinction between public and private money I think is sometimes a bit overstated.
If we push up prices, push up wages and then prices in fast food restaurants, it's true for workers who keep their jobs there would most likely be a reduction in eligibility for government benefits, but there's two tradeoffs. First of all, some people, I would maintain, will lose their jobs, and they will likely be eligible for more government benefits.
We have lots of experience with mandated wage floors. Those policies do, not surprisingly, deliver wage gains to those who keep their jobs, but whether one keeps a job is a big if because those policies do cause some job loss instead. Secondly, prices will go up. If the person behind the counter is no lower in income than the person in front of the counter, then part of what goes on when you raise wages and raise prices is a transfer between those two workers and their families, and that may have little justification.
YOUNG: Where does - as an economist, where does Henry Ford fit into this? In 1914, he effectively doubled his workers' wages because he said make the best quality of goods possible, the lowest cost possible, pay the highest wages possible. And this may be mythology, I thought his thinking was the more I pay my workers, the more they're going to buy what I make.
NEUMARK: I think that's probably not the argument that survives the research. I think the argument that survives the research is more that sometimes paying a high wage can elicit responses from your workers that increases their productivity. So certainly if I'm an employer, and I raise my wage, and other employers who hire the same kind of people as me don't, my workers are going to stick around longer.
So you could imagine a company saying we're going to go with higher wages, then we're going to train more, and we're going to - our workers are going to stick around longer, and that's going to be good for our bottom line. Another company may say, you know what, that doesn't really work for us.
We don't really need to train our workers, the jobs are very simple. We can live with very high turnover, and maybe we're mechanized enough, or we have enough supervision built in, that loyalty and that kind of stuff doesn't really matter very much.
So companies choose different strategies. Are there some offsetting responses to raising the wage in terms of a company's bottom line? Yes, there are. I think, though, if the company thought it actually would be more profitable to pay higher wages because of these responses, it would do so, and as a consequence, and we see this in the evidence, when wages are forced up on low-wage employers, there is some job loss that results.
YOUNG: That's economist David Neumark, director of the Center for Economics & Public Policy at the University of California, Irvine. David, thank you so much.
NEUMARK: Thank you.
YOUNG: So an economist's opinion, and when we come back, two fast food workers, and also "The Daily Show's" take on critics of these workers.
JEREMY HOBSON, HOST:
In the meantime, a look at some of the other stories we're following. President Obama plans to nominate John Koskinen as commissioners of the IRS. He has been Freddie Mac chairman and a Y2K czar, but can he turn around the troubled IRS? Also the musical duo The Civil Wars made a new album while splitting up, Singer-songwriter Joy Williams, one-half of the now defunct group, will describe the contentious project later today on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.
We're back in a minute with more of Robin's conversation, HERE AND NOW.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
YOUNG: It's HERE AND NOW. Today we're looking at the rolling strikes being held by fast food workers, organizers calling it the single largest action in the history of the fast food industry, thousands of workers demonstrating for higher wages and the right to unionize.
Fox News host Neil Cavuto is a critic. He says when he turned 16, he was grateful for a job at the chain Arthur Treacher's, just $2 an hour and all the fish he could eat. But "Daily Show" host John Oliver pointed out that the median fast food worker today is 28 years old and...
(SOUNDBITE OF TELEVISION PROGRAM, "THE DAILY SHOW")
JOHN OLIVER: Cavuto's $2-an-hour wage in 1974, adjusted for inflation, would today be worth nearly $9.50, which is more than $2 more than today's minimum wage.
YOUNG: And Cinnamon Tigner works at Wendy's, where she makes $7.35 an hour. She uses that to support herself and her two-year-old daughter. And Rasheen Aldridge works at Jimmy John's. That's a chain of sub shops. He makes $8 an hour. They both estimate they make about 16 or 17 a year. And they join us from the studios of St. Louis Public Radio. Welcome to both of you.
CINNAMON TIGNER: Hi, thank you for having us today.
RASHEEN ALDRIDGE: Hello.
YOUNG: What are you looking for?
ALDRIDGE: Fifteen and a union. You know, we need a living wage. We need to survive.
YOUNG: And Rasheen, I understand you're living with your mom, you're still living with your family, can't afford to move out, but you're asking your employers to almost double your salary. Many economists say they would be unable to keep the cost of the food down.
ALDRIDGE: I don't agree with that. I mean the Big Mac goes up without our wages go up. So I mean I don't understand how if we make more, that the food price is going to go up.
YOUNG: And what's the importance of a union to you, Cinnamon?
TIGNER: It's very important because you will feel protected. They - your job is in jeopardy every day you go to work. If you're in a union, if your manager's having a bad day, and he or she just wants to fire you because they're having a bad day, you have a union to protect you.
YOUNG: Well, you also work an on-call shift. Tell us what that means.
TIGNER: I can come into work whenever they need me to be there. I do that so I can have more money on my check.
YOUNG: So it means that you are available 24 hours a day.
YOUNG: But that - doesn't that also mean that you can't, as many workers have to do, you can't take a second job?
TIGNER: Right. I still need to spend time with my daughter. So if I do two jobs, I really wouldn't be able to see her, you know.
YOUNG: Look, you've had a lot of support. We've seen pictures of workers like yourself marching through different cities, people coming out to support them. But there have also been critics. I was listening to our sister show ON POINT, and there was a caller who said that this was making his blood boil because you knew the wages when you took the job, you shouldn't have taken the job if you didn't approve of the wages you were being paid.
And he also implied that people shouldn't stay in these jobs, that these are jobs for teenagers flipping burgers, not people raising children. And the companies also have said that they are proud of the fact that they offer a low-level, entry-level job for someone just coming into the workforce.
TIGNER: Yeah, that's kind of - I've been working in fast food since I was 16. I've been on my own since I was 17. Some people are not blessed to have a job that's behind a desk, behind a computer, doing something that they love to do. A lot of people, life is hard for some people. And if these are the only jobs that are available for you to work and to take care of yourself and take care of your family, why can't it be a living wage for you to raise your family with?
We have people who's 50, who's 35, managers who's older than I am who's trying to make a living off their wages also. It's not just particularly off of just children working at a fast food restaurant. Yeah, you get that, you'll get kids, and I know a lot of people that's in universities that works at a fast food restaurant to make ends meet to pay for education, to pay for their children's education, to do anything they can to make a better life for themselves and for their children.
YOUNG: Well, in fact I think you're sitting next to one. Rasheen, do I understand that you're working at a fast food chain but also trying to go to school?
ALDRIDGE: Yes, currently I'm enrolled at St. Louis Community College at Forest Park. And I mean, just like Cinnamon said, I've been working fast food since 16, but it's not like we're like, you know, we're not trying to better ourselves. But these are the jobs that are hiring. Every time you look on a corner, another Burger King or Subway is being built.
You know, like Cinnamon said, these jobs behind a desk, these corporate jobs are really not hiring. They don't have enough positions. So these jobs are not the ideal jobs that we want, but we have to survive, and we can't do it off these jobs.
YOUNG: Well, do you fear that you might lose these jobs because you've been protesting and you don't have a union to back you?
ALDRIDGE: Every day, every day, but we're so strong because we know that first off, the workers, we have each other's back. Like we're brothers and sisters. It's amazing how it's like just bonded, just to know that we have each other's back and then to have so much community support, faith leaders coming out saying, you know, we have your back.
You know, you still have that, you know, that scariness in you that, you know, we're not unionized. These jobs can do anything to us. They can fire us and not rehire us, but I feel way more comfortable knowing that I have the support from workers and also the community. It's just amazing.
YOUNG: I'm wondering, too, this is happening at a time when people have become far more conscious of the inequities in income and wages, huge gap. Is that part of what fuels this?
TIGNER: No, it's - to be honest, it's really the things that we go through at work, the duties that we really have to do. A fast food restaurant is like six jobs in one. Like we have to cook, we clean, we clean bathrooms, we scrub floors, we do everything to keep a restaurant clean, to keep everyone feel like that they're at home when they're in McDonald's, or they're in Wendy's, or they're in anyplace.
You know, we do a lot of work, and I feel like it's not worth 7.35. It's not worth $8. It's worth 12, it's worth more than that. You know, it's worth more than just change.
YOUNG: Have you gone back? I know you just had the rolling protest in St. Louis. Have you gone back to work?
TIGNER: Yes. Yes, I have. I went back to work yesterday.
ALDRIDGE: And I also....
YOUNG: What was that like? You too, Rasheen. What was that like, both of you, first of all from your co-workers or maybe your management? What did you feel? And are customers noting what's gone on?
TIGNER: It was a lot of tension when I went back to work, to be honest. I felt really awkward, I felt out of place, but I know where I stand. I knew what I was fighting for. I knew that it's just, it's bigger than just me. It's a change that's supposed to be happening. And you'll get a lot of negativity, but it's up to you to just stand up and make that change to let people know that even though you might not agree with it, but I'm still doing this for you. I'm doing this for us, period.
YOUNG: For your co-workers as well. Rasheen?
ALDRIDGE: It was amazing. Like the walk back is amazing, because we walked back to work with community leaders, like I said, and you know, different people in the community and faith leaders that, you know, walked us back into work, and they deliver this letter to the manager saying, you know, we were on, you know, a legal one-day strike and we'll be returning to work.
You know, and we just want to work, you know, hopefully no retaliations happen, but when I went back yesterday, you know, everybody was like, oh, I've seen you on the news, you know, you know, you're doing a good job, you know, keep it up. It was that good feeling of, you know, they - the workers, you know, they're happy, you know, what I'm doing. You know, maybe they couldn't take the step just because of their nervousness and which we all have.
You know, I was nervous to go on strike because you don't know what they're going to do, not being unionized. They can let us go at a drop of a dime. But to, you know, have the support of just so many people, it - the nerves just go away because you know that you're protected.
YOUNG: That's Rasheen Aldridge and Cinnamon Tigner, fast food workers in the St. Louis area who participated in that city's one-day strike earlier this week. Rasheen, Cinnamon, thanks so much for speaking with us.
ALDRIDGE: Thank you.
TIGNER: Thank you.
YOUNG: So how have these strikes affected you? Are you finding yourself looking at fast food workers a little differently when you go in because of new respect for what they do? Are you worried that their demands for a higher raise will hurt your pocketbook? Let us know, hereandnow.org. Latest news is next, HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.