In recent weeks, fast-food and retail workers around the country have taken to the streets to demand $15 per hour and new laws for creating unions. In the process, they’ve created a movement less suggestive of recent labor disputes than of strikes a century or more ago, when workers first found their voice.
It is easy to have sympathy for them, toiling away at places like McDonald’s, Burger King and Wal-Mart for the federal minimum wage of $7.25 per hour or slightly more.
They embody one of the most intractable problems of our day: income stagnation in the middle class, particularly for people with little education who once saw blue-collar work as their ticket to the American dream.
Since 1993, inflation-adjusted income of the top 1% of earners has grown by 58%, while it has grown only by 6.4% for the other 99%.
In this context, $15 an hour doesn’t seem like such a bad idea. It comes to $600 a week, or about $30,000 per year. But the workers are asking for more than a raise from their employers. They want hikes in the national and state minimum wages. And they want new laws to make it easier to create labor unions.
Any number set by government is going to have an element of arbitrariness to it. If the federal minimum were indexed for inflation and back-dated to the last hike in 2009, it would be $7.76. President Obama is asking for $9. Some members of Congress want $10.10. Without a market setting the rate, it’s hard to say what the appropriate level would be.
Regional variations in the cost of living add further inequity. Currently, 19 states and Washington, D.C., require more than the federal minimum wage, with Washington state having the highest at $9.19 an hour.
The workers’ call for new laws making it easier to unionize is harder to assess because, not surprisingly, the fledgling movement hasn’t defined exactly what it wants.
Organizing a union is, to be sure, an increasingly hard slog in an age when companies with worldwide scale can ignore a local strike without significant cost to the bottom line. But labor law at least ensures a fair opportunity to organize.
If 30% of workers sign petitions seeking to certify a union, an election is held under federal supervision. Management and labor each get time to make their case. If a majority votes to certify a union, it is empowered to negotiate with the employer.
The main option pushed by labor groups involves secret certification by petition, which hardly seems fair.
Other aspects of labor law could be improved, to protect organizers, for instance. But the best bet for the workers is continued public pressure. Protests, combined with boycotts, could put retail and restaurant companies on the defensive, as they sell directly to the public and are image-sensitive. The rise of social media adds new power to those old tactics.
Workers could win if they are savvy and persistent. The weak job market won’t last forever. And public attitudes could be changing as the result of persistent gaps between soaring corporate profits and stagnant worker pay.
But workers should resist the temptation to make government solve their problems. That’s a recipe for turning the public against them.