Chasten Florence was on his lunch break when he decided to join a protest outside a McDonald’s in New York City on Wednesday. To be honest, Florence wasn’t really sure what he was helping protest. But as he lay his body down on the sidewalk at a die-in of low-wage workers demanding a $15 wage and a union, Florence simply explained, “These are my people.”
Didn’t Florence need to eat lunch? Sure, but he could spare five minutes. Working concrete on construction jobs, Florence earns more than $15 an hour and thinks everyone else should, too. “I don’t know how you can raise a household on less,” said Florence. And he’s right. You can’t.
On April 15, workers from McDonald’s, Walmart and other low-wage employers were joined by college students and adjunct faculty, domestic workers and leaders from the Black Lives Matter movement. In all, tens of thousands participated in protests in 200 cities across the United States to demand a $15 minimum wage and a union. The #FightFor15 is unconventional in that, instead of focusing on Congress to raise wages, workers and advocates are pressuring employers and also the general public—trying to foster awareness about dismal wages and working conditions and create a groundswell of support for change.
The nationwide protests were organized on Tax Day, April 15, because 4/15 is a short-hand for the campaign’s wage demands. But it was also meant to highlight the fact that the poverty wages paid by fast food restaurants and employers are so low that many low-wage workers are forced to rely on public assistance benefits to get by. In fact, almost three-quarters of Americans who depend on public assistance programs like food stamps and Medicaid are members of a family headed by someone who has a job.
In other words, in America today, many people are poor not because they don’t have a job but because they have a job that pays poverty wages. If the minimum wage had grown at the same rate as overall productivity since 1968, then the minimum wage would now be $18.50 an hour—instead of $7.25, the current federal minimum wage. In fact, adjusted for inflation, the federal minimum wage has actually dropped. In 2014 dollars, the 1968 minimum wage was equal to $9.54 an hour.
The stagnation of working class wages cannot be explained by a lack of hard work or skills. Low-wage workers have more education than their 1968 counterparts—and yet are still being paid less. And as this graph from Mother Jones shows, while worker productivity has steadily risen over the past several decades, overall wages have not grown at the same pace—even though the income of the top 1% has spiked dramatically.
As taxpayers, we foot the bill for greedy employers who pay poverty wages. For instance, because McDonald’s won’t pay its workers a living wage, taxpayers are paying $1.2 billion per year in food stamp costs and other public assistance just for McDonald’s workers alone. That’s like our tax dollars subsidizing McDonald’s profit—and greed.
Recently McDonald’s announced it would raise wages by $1.00 an hour for workers in its corporate-owned stores, which since most McDonald’s are franchise operations, means the raise will affect less than 10 percent of McDonald’s workers. Beth Schaffer, who works at a McDonald’s in Charleston, South Carolina, and came to New York for the protests, shrugged her shoulders about the raise. After all, every single McDonald’s in South Carolina is a franchise not covered by the $1.00-an-hour increase. “My customers show me more respect than my employer,” said Schaffer. As her tone made clear, that’s not saying much.
As I left the Fight for $15 protest, one of several staged throughout New York on Wednesday, Chasten Florence walked one way back to his construction site and I walked the other way. I passed the tony restaurants of New York’s Upper West Side, on what seemed like one of the first real days of spring, men and women in business suits sitting at tables on the sidewalk, taking in the sun. Most were probably spending more on lunch than the workers at the protest earn in a week. Myself included.
And there’s nothing wrong with that, with wealth and success and enjoying what comes with it. The question is, are we paying enough attention to the costs? I wondered whether the people eating their expensive lunches knew that the bussers taking their plates can barely afford to feed their own families, that the workers at their children’s daycares don’t have health insurance, that the cheap stuff they order conveniently on Amazon.com is definitely comes at a high cost to the workers who make and ship those goods.
The construction worker who joined the Fight for $15 protest didn’t know that much about the issues or the protest demands, either. But he was going out of his way to learn, and to be supportive. “These are my people,” he said. Yes, they’re all of our people. It’s time we all wake up, pay attention, be angry and stand with our fellow human beings to do something about it. The status quo of wage injustice and greed-driven inequality relies on our complicity, whether by silence or ignorance. But it cannot survive if we all stand up together and fight.