Protest supporters say the job actions have broad implications for the nation’s workforce. With the long decline of manufacturing jobs and other well-paying positions that do not require advanced educational credentials accelerating during the recession, jobs at fast-food restaurants and retailers represent the future of work for many Americans. The federal Bureau of Labor Statistics projects that seven of the 10 fastest-growing occupations over the next decade will be low-wage ones, such as home health aides, store clerks, food preparation workers and laborers.
Detroit 15, a coalition of religious and labor groups organizing the protests in that city, is pushing for fast-food restaurants to raise their pay, eventually to $15 an hour. Right now, workers, many of whom are paid close to Michigan’s $7.40 per hour minimum wage, say they are barely getting by.
“The growth of this entire thing has been quite organic,” said the Rev. Charles Williams II, a leader in Detroit 15 and president of the Michigan chapter of the National Action Network. “People are upset that their wages are low and their working conditions are bad. The divide between rich and poor has gotten greater and people have decided that there has to be more equality.”
Gregory Williams, 57, for decades worked selling cars, then insurance and then medical equipment, but he finally had to resort this year to his current job, working the grill on the graveyard shift at a McDonald’s restaurant in Southfield, Mich.
“I have bills to pay. Rent, food, just basic needs. How can I do that on $7.50 an hour?” he said. “Fast food is a $200 billion industry; they can do better than $7.50 an hour.”
A report by the National Employment Law Project last summer said that mid-wage occupations — paying $14 to $21 an hour — accounted for 60 percent of the job losses during the recession, but just 22 percent of the job growth in the recovery. By contrast, low-wage jobs — defined as those paying $7 to $13 an hour — had accounted for 58 percent of the job growth as of last summer, while they accounted for just 21 percent of the job losses during the downturn.
“These strikes highlight that the economic recovery has its limits,” said Mary Kay Henry, president of the Service Employees International Union, which is working with local activists and church leaders to support the strikes. “Working people are getting more impatient with an economy producing jobs that do not pay enough to cover their basic needs.”