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Employees at Billion Dollar Companies Fight for a Living Wage

Tuesday, 04 December 2012 13:09 By s e smith, Care 2 | Report
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nyworkers mainA demonstrator holds a protest sign in New York, November 29, 2012. Fast-food workers at several restaurants in New York walked off the job on Thursday, firing the first salvo in what workplace experts say is the biggest effort to unionize fast-food workers ever undertaken in the United States. (Michael Nagle/The New York Times)Fast food workers in New York City are back on the job after a strike that attracted national attention and “scared the heck out of the bosses,” as labor journalist Sarah Jaffe put it in an interview with Ed Schultz. The strike is one among a recent string of labor actions conducted by low-wage workers in the U.S. to fight for fair pay as well as better working conditions. Walmart workers notably took action on Black Friday, historically one of the biggest retail days of the year, while the Retail Action Project has been organizing on  behalf of workers affected by wage theft, on-call shift scheduling and other labor abuses. Meanwhile, the union UNITE HERE has been working with hotel workers at chains like Hyatt to address poor working conditions.

One in four workers in the United States is employed in a low-wage job. That includes many people in the food service industry, retail employees, janitors, hotel workers, agricultural laborers, and many others who make the U.S. economy tick; notably, many of these workers are also women and people of color, and the workers’ educational level tends to be lower than that of the general population. While this underclass labors, large companies like their employers profit, often immensely so. Growth is up for firms like Walmart, despite economic problems, indicating that their business strategy is effective.

A key part of that strategy involves underpaying their workers. With a federal minimum wage set at $7.25, far too low for the cost of living in many areas, low-wage workers are often forced to work multiple jobs while still struggling to pay the bills. In addition, they are rarely entitled to benefits like health care, retirement accounts, paid sick days, and paid time off. U.S. workers are working harder and longer than ever before, but that’s not balanced by greater productivity, just more profits for their employers.

Writing for The Atlantic, Jaffe notes that these signs of rebellion are occurring at a time when labor unions are in decline, with fewer workers protected by union membership than ever before. As workers grow frustrated with poor conditions and low wages, walkouts and similar acts of protest become an effective communication method that doesn’t just help them organize. It also helps them attract the attention of society in general, pushing people to support their cause. The series of walkouts and other labor actions across the nation in 2012 may be laying the blueprint for more aggressive labor organizing, including a push for a higher federal minimum wage.

Fighting for the rights of low-wage workers is critical, and it’s something that the nation as a whole should be supporting. Better wages equal greater opportunities for economic involvement, which could be a key component of economic recovery; more spending power for workers currently fighting to make ends meet means more demand for a range of goods. Higher wages also means fewer people depending on social services for survival, and a regrowth of the U.S. middle class.

The only thing standing in the way may be the companies who stand to lose if the minimum wage increases, and citizens must take action to counter their lobbying abilities in Congress.

This piece was reprinted by Truthout with permission or license. It may not be reproduced in any form without permission or license from the source.

s e smith

s.e. smith is a writer, agitator, and commentator based in Northern California, with a journalistic focus on social issues, particularly gender, prison reform, disability rights, environmental justice, queerness, class, and the intersections thereof, with a special interest in rural subjects. smith delights in amplifying the voices of those who are often silenced and challenging dominant ideas about justice, equality, and liberation. International publication credits include work for the Sydney Morning Herald, The Guardian, and AlterNet, among many other news outlets and magazines. Riling people up while also informing them about ongoing issues in the world around them is a favorite activity, along with taking any and all opportunities to discuss pop culture. Assisted by cats Loki and Leila and a flock of roaming chickens, smith lives in Fort Bragg, California.

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