Time for a Raise?: Inside the Fight for 15

“It’s impossible to run a democracy where you have vast privilege and vast poverty with nothing in between. It’s already not working; too many people are disenfranchised both politically and economically.”
-- Rabbi Michael Feinberg (Photo via Fight for 15)
“It’s impossible to run a democracy where you have vast privilege and vast poverty with nothing in between. It’s already not working; too many people are disenfranchised both politically and economically.”-- Rabbi Michael Feinberg (Photo via Fight for 15)

“It’s impossible to run a democracy where you have vast privilege and vast poverty with nothing in between. It’s already not working; too many people are disenfranchised both politically and economically.”
-- Rabbi Michael Feinberg (Photo via Fight for 15)

The kind of day Kasseen Silver has at work often depends on the weather. He’s worked at the Burger King on 116th Street (at Lexington Avenue) in Manhattan for two years now, and, he says, “My particular store, when it rains outside it rains inside. If it’s really hot outside you know you’re going to be hot inside.”

Silver, who is part of the Fast Food Forward campaign calling for a raise to $15 an hour and union recognition, lives in the Bronx with his wife and three children. It takes him about an hour and a half to get to work, closer to two hours when he gets out of an evening shift. “At 1:30, 2:00 in the morning I’ll be on public transportation. I take three different trains to get to my destination, sometimes I’m delayed. I’m very tired.”

Like so many of New York’s fast food workers, he makes $7.45 an hour, and rarely if ever is he scheduled for a full 40-hour week. Transportation takes a chunk of that money right off the top. “If I don’t have lunch money, breakfast money, if I don’t have any money throughout the week I have to make sure I have transportation to get to work and get back home,” he says. “That’s like $30 taken out of a $180 check.”

A typical day at work for Silver starts with taking out the garbage, cleaning his station, and preparing the food. There’s a whole language, he notes, to the fast food world, and there’s always more work to be done. “Once you get embedded into that setting you work that way,” he says. “Being there for the time I have, I developed a routine.”

Since he’s been on the job so long, Silver serves as a trainer for new employees, so often he’s got to supervise a new colleague while making sure to get his food out in a timely manner. In addition, he often finds that on truck delivery day, he’s scheduled to work; when an unruly customer causes trouble in the store, he’s the one called on to remove them. He feels like he’s doing assistant manager work, yet he’s never had a raise in his two years on the job.

“Sometimes you just want to feel like it’s worth it, the pay that I receive for the amount of work and responsibility I take on,” he says. “I tell people it may not be a lot of money but your work ethic should speak for itself. I know what I’m worth, I know what kind of service I give the store that I work for, and what I give to customers.”

In an industry where the average wage is less than $9 an hour, says Catherine Ruetschlin of nonpartisan think tank Demos, trying to support a family on an income like that—which comes out to less than $18,500 a year even if a worker does regularly work 40 hours a week—will leave you with a whole range of unmet needs. Ruetschlin is the author of a recent report, Retail’s Hidden Potential: How Raising Wages Would Benefit Workers, the Industry and the Overall Economy, looking at the changes a base salary of $25,000 a year would bring to the lives of low-wage workers and the communities they live in.

Silver manages to make ends meet—barely--because his wife too holds down a job. Without her income, he says, “My predicament would probably be a little different as far as making ends meet. I’m grateful I don’t have to make those kinds of decisions, but it’s sad when you’re trying to be a productive citizen, and you know that all your hard work is still not enough financially to take care of yourself and your family.”

“Big fast food employers have grown 19 times faster than overall employment,” Ruetschlin says. In part, the fast food industry did pretty well during the recession and the so-called recovery because it provides cheap meals for people who can’t afford better. McDonald’s, she points out, made $5.5 billion in profit last year and saw a huge jump in earnings per share.

Like Walmart, fast-food restaurants have made billions by catering to the growing low-income population, but as they continue to push wages lower, their employees can’t even afford to patronize them.

That’s why New York’s fast food workers are part of a growing movement among low-wage workers to demand better. The fast food workers held their second one-day strike on April 4th, supported by clergy, community members, and other workers from around the city whose struggles mirror their own: car wash workers, grocery store workers, security employees from JFK airport, and retail and restaurant workers, all of whom make near minimum wage.

Rabbi Michael Feinberg, executive director of the Greater New York Labor-Religion Coalition, says that the growing movement, galvanized by Occupy Wall Street, has helped reframe the conversation to the point where even President Obama mentioned the minimum wage in his State of the Union and notoriously economically conservative New York governor Andrew Cuomo pushed a minimum wage hike through in Albany.

“Everybody’s on board that one at least rhetorically,” Feinberg says. “People are realizing that there’s this vast subterranean economy of low-wage, below minimum wage, at minimum wage work. People are working poverty wages and it’s unsustainable. People know that, but we don’t yet have a political solution. It’s absolutely essential that the workers fight these battles sector by sector, but as a society we need to figure this out in a political way.”

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“These low-wage jobs are one of the largest growing sectors projected for the next decade,” Ruetschlin says. “More and more households are going to be depending on low incomes to get by.” And, she notes, those same low-income earners are the consumers we depend on to spend and keep businesses going.   “In a time of weak consumer demand like we’re facing now, one of the best things we can do is to give more money to households at the bottom.”

The folks at the bottom of the income distribution tend to spend all the money they make, while higher-income earners put some of that money into savings and investment. And as those low-wage workers spend, that money goes back into local businesses, who then need to hire more workers—or give the ones they have more hours.