Developing strategies to end hunger

Fast Food Workers Walk Out

A glimpse of worker protests at Union Square in New York City (video credit: Fast Food Forward). 

Lines at fast-food drive-throughs across the country just got longer.

Workers from some of the largest U.S. fast-food chains are dropping deep fryers and abandoning cashier stations this week. A series of one-day walkouts are planned by employees of McDonald’s, Wendy’s, Burger King, and KFC in cities across the country including New York City, Chicago, Seattle, Detroit, Milwaukee, St. Louis, Kansas City, and Flint, MI. And employees at retail outlets such as Macy’s, Dollar Tree, and Victoria’s Secret are poised to follow. More and more workers say that they don’t earn enough for them and their families to live on. And many protest stagnant wages – after several years of work, they have never gotten a raise.

The average income of the bottom fifth of U.S. wage-earners fell by nearly 6 percent in the 2000s. In that same period, the earnings of the top tenth rose by 8.6 percent. The Economic Policy Institute estimates that 28 million full-time U.S. workers earned an average annual income of $20,510 —not nearly enough to keep a family of four above the federal poverty line, which is set at a modest $23,550 a year for a family that size. Fast-food workers in many cities have it much worse than that. New York City fast food workers average an annual income of just $11,000. 

A coalition of community groups, religious leaders, and national labor unions such as the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) are coordinating the series of strikes. In New York, a representative of Fast Food Forward, one of the leading organizing groups in the city, told CBS New York, "A lot of the workers are living in poverty, you know, not being able to afford to put food on the table or take the train to work… The workers are striking over the fact that they can’t continue to maintain their families on the wages they’re being paid in the fast-food industry."

Fast food is just the latest sector to face worker protests in the past year or so. Manufacturing, government, and retail have experienced repeated strikes by low-wage workers as well. All of the strikers demand the same thing — a livable wage.

Poverty Rates by Household Type, Mid-2000s, Among Industrialized CountriesThough its one of the wealthiest countries, the United States (in orange) has one of the highest poverty rates in the industrialized world (Image from 2013 Hunger Report).

The reality of American life is that all too many jobs do not pay enough, do not enable parents to balance work and family responsibilities, and do not allow workers the right to negotiate as a group for better pay or more flexible schedules. So far, federal government policies that try to respond to these problems are doing too little to make a difference. The top earners in the United States make more than the top earners in every other developed country, but our lowest-wage workers are worse off than their peers in all but a few of these countries.

Bread for the World Institute’s 2013 Hunger Report discusses the responsibility of the private sector (fast food included) to pay their workers fairly in order to do their part to reduce poverty. The social contract that links business, families, government, and civil society is the bedrock of our society. But over time, it has been eroded. U.S. government policy must reverse this trend and help labor regain its voice. 

Read more about income inequality in the United States in Chapter 4 of the 2013 Hunger Report, Within Reach: Global Development Goals, and keep a look out for the 2014 Hunger Report, coming Thanksgiving 2013!

Derek Schwabe


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Whenever you buy from these big "chains" about a third of the money goes off to some far away main office/CEO. What remains is used to buy the cheapest ingredients corporate research can find. Not good for anyone else.

Is there a way that those of us who might otherwise be consumers of fast food or other industries where workers are protesting can support the workers in their walkouts this week?

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