A summer of protests over fast food workers’ impossibly low wages reached its boiling point yesterday, when employees in New York and 49 other cities walked off the job in a one-day strike. In Lower Manhattan, our own Raillan Brooks interviewed Tyeisha Batts, a 27-year-old Burger King worker who makes a staggering $150 a week. Meanwhile in an alternate, much plusher universe, several juggernaut industry lobbying groups waged a media blitzkreig, claiming that low wages are good for people like Batts. In fact, they argued, raising the minimum wage to $15 or even $10 an hour would hurt her and other “low-skilled workers” by denying them “the opportunity to get a job and receive ‘on the job’ training.”
“What fresh shovelful of bullshit is this?”, I hear you asking. Great question. Hold your nose and follow me.
There are lots of companies who are threatened by the fast food workers’ strikes, and those workers’ sudden insistence on crazy luxuries like “union rights” and “non-poverty wages.” McDonald’s was very quiet yesterday, as was Burger King and Wendy’s; none of the three bothered to issue press releases on the strike, although McDonald’s did tell Salon, “The story promoted by the individuals organizing these events does not provide an accurate picture of what it means to work at McDonald’s.” Good to know: do not ask McDonald’s workers what it’s like to work at McDonald’s anymore.
But three lobbying groups were happy to do the dirty work for the fast food companies, spending all day yesterday tweeting frenziedly, issuing press releases and dismissive statements about how paying these people more will ruin America. Those groups are the National Federation of Independent Business, the National Retail Federation and the National Restaurant Association. All three of them pour millions into lobbying your lawmakers each year, and they all had some really creative arguments why a higher wage for fast food workers is just unthinkable. (Some conservative think tanks also chimed in, like the Employment Policies Institute, who ran this WSJ ad threatening fast food workers with replacement by robots.)
The National Federation of Independent Business likes to masquerade as a humble assistance group for small business owners. In fact, they spent more than $47 million on lobbying last year, and donated some $14 million to politicians, 90 percent of them Republicans and most of them at the federal level. Based in Tennessee, but with offices in D.C., the NFIB concern themselves with any proposed legislation they think is a threat to “free enterprise.” And lately, Obamacare and a higher minimum wage are public enemies number one and two. They’ve argued against raising the minimum wage at all, even to $8.50, saying, basically, that keeping wages in proportion with the cost of living is a crippling burden the U.S. economy cannot bear.
To that end, the group had lots of fun promoted tweets yesterday, ones that often showed up when I searched for “minimum wage,” ” living wage,” or “fast food strike.” Here’s one that showed up in my timeline frequently:
— NFIB (@NFIB) August 29, 2013
Fast food workers, according to the logic of NFIB chief economist and unbelievable name-haver Bill Dunkelberg, aren’t “consumers.” (How can they be? They don’t make any goddamn money.) Therefore, anything that’s good for them hurts the economy. The NFIB also argues that raising the minimum wage would deny low-wage workers that ‘on the job’ training that they would somehow, mystifyingly, not be able to get if they were paid a decent living.
Best of all, they claimed that most minimum-wage workers are from “above median-income families,” “kids, students and so on” as Dunkelberg put it. In the fast food industry, that was true in the early ’90s, when Bill Dunkelberg last bought a suit, but decidedly isn’t the case anymore. Thirty-six percent of all fast food workers are aged 25 to 54, according to an analysis of government data for the Center For Economic Policy and Research, a progressive think tank. The analysts also found that most workers have a high school degree or higher.
The National Retail Federation and the National Restaurant Association — both of whom spend similarly staggering amounts on lobbying and politician-buying — also took the same sort of tack. The Restaurant Association told NBC News that only “five percent” of fast food workers earn the minimum wage, which is sort of true: the median wage for all food preparation workers is a whopping $8.78, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, which, yes, technically is above minimum wage. Barely. Excellent semantics.
The National Retail Federation, meanwhile, focused on the fact that labor union SEIU is backing the protests. In a statement, Executive Director Rob Green said, in part, “A few scattered protests organized by outside labor groups hardly amounts to a nationwide ‘strike’ or movement,” adding:
Beyond teen-agers and some part-timers, most restaurant workers make more than minimum wage, and can work their way up to management-level and corporate-level positions that provide rewarding career paths. These orchestrated ‘strikes’ and walkouts create headlines but do nothing to foster serious discussion about effective policies to create jobs in today’s still-struggling economy.
The best way to “foster serious discussion,” of course, is to ignore the country’s low-wage workers when they take to the streets. That always turns out well.