“Fast-Food Civil Rights”: Would You Like Fries With That, Comrade?

memphisslim / (Shutterstock.com)
memphisslim / (Shutterstock.com)

Last Saturday, fast-food workers held a convention in Villa Park, Illinois whereby they voted to unionize and collectively demand a $15 per hour wage. I’ve been watching this movement develop over the past few years, wondering at what point it would be declared a civil right to earn $15 an hour flipping burgers.

That point came on Saturday. The Houston Chronicle reported the Rev. William Barber II, head of the North Carolina NAACP, saying that the movement is young but as important as when civil-disobedience efforts began during the early years of the civil-rights movement. The convention included sessions on civil disobedience.

It figures that the organizers behind this movement would use this tactic because it’s effective. This notion of “justice” being applied to fast-food jobs is the latest way to organize and make demands. Once it’s politicized it becomes an argument that takes on a whole new tone. If you don’t support this call for a “living wage,” suddenly you’re against civil rights, and that makes you a racist bigot who is beneath contempt. But I believe framing this as a civil-rights issue is ludicrous and an insult to the people who endured the civil-rights struggles of the past. Even though Rep. John Lewis has compared the movements, calling the pay “starvation wages,” no one is being forced to work at any fast-food restaurant against their will. Ronald McDonald isn’t siccing the dogs or turning the fire hoses on these poor souls.

The restaurant industry has responded that the jobs are meant to be entry-level positions and not lifelong careers. Their concern is that if they had to pay employees $15 an hour, customers would feel the pinch. It doesn’t take a business whiz to realize that if a fast-food worker starts at $15 an hour then the industry will change how it conducts business, either by drastically raising prices or laying off workers—probably both. That would be ironic considering other low-wage earners would then likely be priced out of the one restaurant experience they can usually afford.

Some of the fast-food workers at Saturday’s convention were wearing T-shirts that said, “We Are Worth More.” But are they really?

I recall getting my first job at a fast-food restaurant when I was 16, and with the exception of the management, nearly all of my coworkers were also teenagers. It was a starter job with a starter salary. It was a way to learn the basic skills of holding a job such as showing up on time, being organized, and following directions. We didn’t need a “living wage” because we all still lived at home with our parents. It wasn’t considered a job that was supposed to provide a wage that could support a family, either, but there was always the opportunity to advance into a position that paid better. That is still the case today if one is willing to work for it. Or get a second job to help make ends meet. Perhaps these protesters haven’t considered that option.

There was a nationwide fast-food strike earlier this year with protesters marching into restaurants and disrupting business. But it’s only going to get worse now that they will be adopting civil disobedience tactics to make their point. Their stated goal is to put pressure on the owners by disrupting business with sit-down strikes and restaurant occupation to block customers from entering, and “to make sure they do not sell anything.”

Protests began in 2012 as a part of push by labor unions and worker advocacy groups to raise the current federal minimum wage of $7.25 to $15. This all comes at a time when President Obama and Democrats are making a campaign issue of raising the minimum wage.

At a rally organized last year by Atlanta Jobs With Justice, a reporter speaking to the two dozen or so activists at a Krystal hamburger restaurant noted that the majority were not actually workers, but union organizers or members. The Service Employees International Union has been providing financial and organizational support to these protests. So this movement would seem to be more about consolidation of union power and union dues than any real concern over civil rights. It was also noted that one protester held a sign quoting Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. stating “Capitalism has outlived its usefulness.”

Anti-capitalists demand that an entire industry play by some arbitrary rule. Why $15 an hour and not $30? Of course these useful-idiots-for-the-unions don’t realize that these jobs belong to the employer that created them and not to the workers, the protesters, or the unions. Only anti-capitalists would organize for a union that would seek to suck the profits and wages in union dues from a business instead of banding together to start their own business to compete in the marketplace. But then again, whining for what you want is always easier than working for what you want. TC mark

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