America’s fast-food workers have just proven that sticking together works.
After more than two years of worker strikes for $15 and union rights, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo made the historic announcement on Thursday that he will convene a wage board to determine how to raise pay for 180,000 fast-food workers across the state. The move will have a profound effect not only on the New York families struggling to get by on fast-food wages, but for the state’s entire service sector—lifting pay for millions of workers.
Cuomo deserves great credit for taking this step to address New York’s low-wage crisis. Right now, the average fast-food worker is paid only one-third the average living wage–$23.58—for a single parent with one child in New York state. A $15 base wage for fast food workers is thus not only a reasonable request of the wage board, it’s an economic imperative. Furthermore it puts New York at the forefront of transforming the service sector on a national scale, so that retail, fast-food, and home care—America’s fastest-growing industries—will become jobs that can support families.
None of this would have happened without the relentless strikes and protests by fast-food workers willing to risk their jobs and risk arrest to stand up for themselves, even when everyone said they were crazy.
In 2013, lawmakers were talking about minimum wage increases—if they were talking about them at all—in the $8.75 to $9 an hour range. So when 200 fast-food workers walked off the job in New York City, their demand for $15 an hour and union rights seemed like a pipe dream. Yet in the years since, the spark ignited in New York has spread like wildfire across the nation and around the world, dramatically shifting the playing field.
Now, workers in the private sector are negotiating for $15, and major employers like Aetna have raised pay above $15. Democrats in Congress just introduced a $12 federal minimum wage bill. Seattle and San Francisco raised their minimum wages to $15 an hour, Los Angeles is following close behind, and Chicago passed a $13 wage. Centrist elected leaders are not only embracing the workers’ calls for $15 but are taking aggressive action to meet them.
In speaking out about not being able to afford groceries without food stamps and health care without Medicaid, fast-food workers forced America to grapple with the damage done to families and the economy when wealthy corporations pay their employees too little to survive. A business model built on poverty pay means American taxpayers pick up a $7 billion tab every year to provide basics like adequate food, shelter, medical care and income support to fast food workers who earn too little to cover the costs. While enriching corporate giants and a few CEOs in this fast-growing industry, this business model is deepening inequality, devastating millions of employees and unfairly shifting costs to taxpayers. It’s an intolerable situation that demands change.
Instead of fighting for nickels and dimes, the small band of pioneering fast-food workers who walked off their jobs in New York one day in 2012 rightly called for the wages they need to survive. Through their Fight for $15, these workers have profoundly changed the landscape of wage politics and are ushering in long overdue reforms that will enable workers to earn real wages for real work.
Christine Owens is the executive director of the National Employment Law Project.
Read the original article at the Albany Times-Union.