More than two million workers toil in food preparation jobs at limited-service restaurants like McDonald’s, according to government statistics. They are the lowest-paid workers in the country, government figures show, typically earning $8.69 an hour. A study by the Economic Policy Institute, a liberal-leaning research organization, concluded that almost three-quarters of them live in poverty. And they are unlikely to have ever contemplated joining a union.
On a full-time schedule, they could make a little over $18,000 a year, just about enough to keep a family of two parents and one child at the threshold of poverty. But full-time work is hard to come by. With fast-food restaurants increasingly using scheduling software to adjust staffing levels, workers can no longer count on a steady stream of work. Their hours can be cut sharply from one week to the next based on the business outlook or even the weather.
The McJob is hardly a niche of the labor market reserved for the uneducated few. Rather, it might be the biggest job of our future.
The American labor market has been hollowing out for decades — losing many of the middle-skilled, relatively well-paid jobs in manufacturing that can be performed more cheaply by machines or workers overseas. It has split between a high end of well-educated workers, and a low end of less-educated workers performing jobs, mostly in the service sector, that cannot be outsourced or mechanized.
This process is not expected to reverse any time soon. According to government statistics, personal care aides will make up the fastest-growing occupation this decade. The Economic Policy Institute study found that some 57 percent of them live in poverty.
“We must go back to the strategies of nonviolent disruption of the 1930s,” suggests Stephen Lerner, a veteran organizer and strategist formerly at the Service Employees International Union, one of the unions behind the fast-food strike. “You can’t successfully organize without large-scale civil disobedience. The law will change when employers say there’s too much disruption. We need another system.”
In the 1990s and 2000s, the S.E.I.U. unionized tens of thousands of mostly Latino janitors from Los Angeles to Houston, including thousands of illegal immigrants, who were until then considered impossible to organize because of their legal status. It did so by putting pressure not only on the building maintenance contractors but also on the building owners who hired them, often resorting to bare-knuckle tactics. In 1990, the union asked members to mail their trash to Judd Malkin, the chairman of the company that owned buildings in the Century City complex in Los Angeles, printing his address on garbage bags. Mr. Malkin met Mr. Lerner soon thereafter.
The second part of the S.E.I.U.’s strategy was equally important. Rather than proposing a union contract for janitors as a narrow goal, the S.E.I.U.’s “Justice for Janitors” campaign framed the effort as a broad movement for the economic rights of low-wage workers. And the union rallied local politicians, community leaders and civil rights groups to their cause.
If unions alone may be powerless, the thinking goes, they can be powerful as part of a broader social movement. “We need workers to come together in formations they haven’t done before,” says Mary Kay Henry, who heads the S.E.I.U. “The tipping point is the entire low-wage economy.”
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