Eaten alive

Eaten alive

By Raymond Freeman 08/29/2013

The wretches in the gulag were desperate. They were worked like slaves. Their conditions were appalling. They protested. They risked arrest but didn’t care. This was in Siberia, right?

No, it was in America. Fast-food workers went on strike. Their pay’s pitiful. They want $15/hour merely to survive. The Washington Post reported that one worker still earns poverty wages after 15 years. Her highest pay’s been $8.65/hour. What’s more, she’s “rarely” scheduled for a 40-hour week.

McDonald’s ginned up a widely-derided “Sample Monthly Budget,” showing its workers how to survive on $1,105 per month. It had perky little tips like “try not to use an ATM outside your bank’s system” to avoid service charges. It assumed they paid $600 for “mortgage/rent,” $20 for health insurance (really?), and nothing for food, clothing, heating, gasoline or child care. Even with those delusions, it still didn’t pencil out. So they added $955 from “Income (second job),” though not “[dumpster] diving” or “[pan]handling.”

Smug, sneering commentators said they should get degrees and leave. Yes, in Republican fantasies, there are 35 hours in each day for two jobs and studying. By one estimate, however, there are already around 400,000 graduates stuck in fast-food jobs. See if you can figure out why.

Why are fast-food workers paid so miserably? In today’s winner-take-all economy, unskilled workers are helpless. The GOP noise machine has convinced everyone they’re paid “market wages.” But the market’s rigged. They have no union to negotiate a fair wage, so they get eaten alive, so as to speak. The gulag employers are laughing all the way to the bank.

“The fact is, we are subsidizing their business model,” says Rep. Keith Ellison, D-Minn. David Zeiler (Money Morning) has calculated that this subsidy has an “aggregate cost to U.S. taxpayers of $89.2 billion a year.” He calls it the Walmart Syndrome. Walmart, America’s largest employer, made $15.4 billion profit in 2011. Yet its workers need food stamps and Medicaid to survive. A study by congressional Democrats shows that just one store alone “costs taxpayers at least $904,542 per year.” There are 4,713 stores, so that’s $4.26 billion right there.

Why must taxpayers subsidize hugely profitable corporations paying starvation wages? Because money’s “free speech,” silly. Ellison says the minimum wage is kept down by lobbyists who spend serious money to corrupt legislators.

Hence, the minimum wage, in real terms, is 31 percent lower than in 1968 (Bill Moyers). The restaurant and retail industries say they operate low-margin businesses. So a $15 minimum wage would supposedly lead to hamburger franchises closing and fewer jobs. Magically, though, shareholder payouts and executive compensation don’t seem to be impacted by the “low margins.”

Dr. Salvatore Babones of Australia’s University of Sidney says (via that if the federal minimum wage had risen in line with economic growth since 1978, it would now be somewhere between $13 and $18/hour, not $7.25/hour. In Australia the industry minimum of AU $17.98/hour is equivalent to U.S. $16.38 at current exchange rates. Babones says that Australia’s fast food workers also get paid sick days, paid holidays, paid vacations and free national health insurance. Perhaps Australians don’t want sick people breathing germs all over their food.

He doesn’t think that paying $15 per hour will be the end of the world, as there are countries where fast-food workers make $15 an hour and have excellent benefits. He states that a Big Mac in Australia costs the equivalent of $4.94 in U.S. dollars, a slight increase over the $4.20 average charged in the USA (due to the greenback’s weakness), and worth it on health grounds in any event.

And most importantly, he notes that Australia was “the only major Western country to avoid falling into recession” after the Crash of 2008. Why? Its workers are paid well and create consumer demand to power its consumption-driven economy. (We have one, too.) He says, “The idea that raising the minimum wage will hurt employment just has no basis in empirical fact” (i.e., real world).

In short, America’s weakest workers are pitilessly exploited. Paying them $15 per hour won’t be the end of the world.  Raising minimum wage doesn’t destroy jobs. Overall, it creates them because of Econ 101: Your income is my expenditure; my income is your expenditure. Henry Ford figured that one out, paid his workers well and actually got richer himself.

Australians understand this. Good luck getting Republicans to understand it. They throw themselves under the juggernaut of the top 1 percent, blindly ignoring economics, facts and morality.

Morally speaking, why shouldn’t fast-food workers be paid a living wage? Their exploitation is iniquitous. How can this be justified, morally? Presumably, the laborers in Christ’s Parable of the Vineyard were paid a living wage (dead laborers can’t pick grapes). “The laborer is worthy of his hire” (Luke 10:7). Why aren’t America’s laborers worthy of their hire?


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Good article, Raymond . . . I really enjoy your stories.

A start would be to pass the Fair Minimum Wage Act of 2013, which raises the minimum wage to $10.10 an hour and provides the first increase to tipped employees in more than 20 years. It also indexes the minimum wage to the cost of living.

posted by brewski on 8/28/13 @ 03:01 p.m.

Well said! Republicans need to wake up and realize they are dooming their children, and grandchildren to near slavery. Your article provides facts and comparisons that will hopefully open an eye or two as to the division that has been created between the have and have nots. People who work should be paid enough to feed their children and pay their rent. Its time to bring back our middle class, and stop this ever increasing divide.

posted by ru4real on 8/28/13 @ 03:58 p.m.

Well Ray, wouldn't small businesses also be forced to pay $15 bucks? You only mention humongous companies. Furthermore, most fast food workers are either teens, who do not need more than minimum, or "immigrants," who are making way more than they would in the Third World toilet bowl they came from. As for retail like Walmart, I wonder if the average worker there feels that they are in the gulag. Have you asked the old guy at the front door? He already had a career and gets a pension. Did you ask the cashier who has a husband with a good job? What about the teen who lives at home with his Doctor dad? By the way, VCR, what is this story? Is it Opinion, or what? Who is this writer? It just appears in the early pages as Sharper Focus. Maybe the Moomjean guy should do a rebuttal? Of course we should have compassion for the downtrodden, but the issue is more complex than this.

posted by Packer on 9/03/13 @ 12:33 p.m.
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