Daniel Tilson: Fast-food workers seek to “strike” right chord with middle class

The death of Nelson Mandela understandably overtook the news on Dec. 5. But there was another story unfolding that day, a story that were he still alive and well would have struck a chord deep inside him, where the passion for social justice burned so bright and long.

From Miami to Tampa and more than 100 other cities nationwide, people who toil away for awful pay in fast-food restaurants walked off the job and were joined by supporters in peaceful public protests.

As with nationwide Walmart employee walkouts on Black Friday, fast-food workers were protesting pay so low they can’t meet their families’ basic needs, while industry giants such as McDonald’s make billions.

These people constitute the “other America,” victims of a kind of economic apartheid, bottom dwellers on the wrong end of the income inequality gap that no less than Pope Francis and President Obama have railed against in their own ways in recent days.

Unfortunately, many middle-class folks balk when asked to actively support fast-food workers seeking minimum pay upwards of $15 an hour.

But the protesters’ “Fight For 15” rallying cry is a bargaining tactic, not an ironclad demand. What they want is middle-class support for bigger, bolder steps toward a living wage, a steady narrowing of the income gap that weighs so heavily on all working families.

Other things the middle class may not realize:

  • Most fast-food workers are over 20 years old and the main breadwinner for their family.
  • One in four is a parent raising young children.
  • More than half must use public assistance to make ends meet, even with 40-plus hour workweeks and second jobs.
  • When corporations won’t pay a living wage, their workers’ public assistance costs are covered by middle-class taxpayers, to the tune of almost $350 million a year in Florida alone.

If unions represented these workers, they could win higher wages fair and square at the bargaining table, saving taxpayers a ton.

But “Right To Work” laws in Florida and 23 other states provide business interests with a blockade against union organizing.

Simply stated, raising the minimum wage in a series of significant steps and removing barriers that deny workers union representation is win-win public policy that the middle class should fight for.

It’s time to laugh at corporate-conservative claims that paying living wages or eliminating barriers to union organizing would “force” companies to cut jobs and raise prices.

When you see such claims as the threats they really are, it’s easier to see through them, uncovering the ugly truth; that most corporations (not all, e.g. Costco’s) are unwilling to endure even slightly lower profits and stock prices in exchange for stabilizing America’s working poor, middle class and national economy.

These corporations spend whatever it takes to buy and shape influence in state legislatures, Congress, and middle-class hearts and minds.

They feed talking points to hired hands in politics, TV, radio, the Internet and newspapers with the sole purpose of convincing us their social irresponsibility is really…

Free enterprise. Job creation. American ingenuity. Exceptionalism.

In addition to putting lipstick on a pig, these companies have accomplished something more darkly dangerous.

They’ve driven a wedge between middle-class and poor workers who desperately need to be allies.

Having been denied union representation and lost leverage, along with pay raises, benefits, pensions and jobs, many middle-class workers are left feeling “lucky just to have a job,” resentful and dismissive of the working poor and unions seeking their support.

Until, perhaps, they find themselves working at McDonald’s.

Daniel Tilson


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