The fight against low pay in the United States

Black Friday and beyond

Cheyanne Gracia

In the US, low-wage workers, from fastfood to retail, have protested, picketed, and gone on strike multiple times this year to demand higher wages and rights on the job.

‘The busiest shopping day of the year’, Black Friday, is the culmination of capitalistic voyeurism, resulting in near riots among consumers as they scramble to purchase cheaply made imported goods. Meanwhile, employees are forced to work longer hours in hectic conditions at wages that make it impossible to support themselves.

Though Black Friday sales entice shoppers with big savings, the cost of operating retail stores like Walmart falls heavily on taxpayers. Working in the second-largest employer in the country, the average Walmart worker earns $8.86 [£5.40] an hour. Lack of benefits, sick leave, and a sufficient salary force many employees to rely on public assistance to ensure they will have access to basic necessities.

A recent study found that more than half of low-wage workers in the fastfood industry rely on some form of public assistance, amounting to $7 billion dollars a year. Profits in the fastfood industry reach into the billions, while forcing the public to foot the bill.

While public assistance is an important and necessary part of organised society, it is ridiculous that some of the largest employers in the country force their workers to depend on social programmes so they can eat and pay their rent.

The demand for a $15 an hour minimum wage is a direct result of companies like McDonald’s and Walmart hoarding profits while ignoring the needs of workers.

In 2012, 400 Walmart workers walked off the job in the midst of the Black Friday chaos. Despite the anti-union policies of the global conglomerate, employees managed to organise another Black Friday strike this year.

Citizens of SeaTac, a town just outside Seattle, recently voted on a ballot over adopting a $15 minimum wage in the town.

In Seattle itself, Socialist Alternative (co-thinkers of the Socialist Party in the US) member Kshama Sawant won her election campaign to Seattle City Council with more than 90,000 votes. A major feature of her campaign was demanding an implementation of a similar $15 an hour initiative.

Interview with a fastfood worker activist

Socialist Alternative member Adam interviews a fastfood worker activist – Carlos Hernandez – who has become a leader in the struggle of low-paid workers in Seattle.

Why are fastfood workers upset?

The working conditions are very bad. Workers are left completely unprotected. They don’t have the opportunity to live a dignified life, to pay the bills, to be able to provide for their families. The majority of workers are always paid the minimum. They aren’t paid overtime.

What are the demands of fastfood workers?

One of the first things is healthcare, because most people don’t have it, and if they do it’s very expensive. There should be more regulation of working conditions, in order to be sure that workers have protection.

One of the most popular demands is for $15 an hour, which would then give workers the capacity to improve their lives and go to school, because they wouldn’t have to work two or three jobs.

We are the ones that make this industry move. We are the ones who open the restaurants, attend to the customers, clean, and make the food. But the bosses don’t care about all this. They don’t care about our wages.

As long as they’re making money the people are recyclable – throw away. When someone gets sick, they’re out. Right now less than 1% of fastfood places have unions. It’s very important that we have them in the fastfood industry.

How have the fastfood companies responded?

The employers are responding exactly as we expected them to. They’re doing whatever they can to make this fail.

A lot of workers are afraid because they have families and they don’t want to lose their jobs. So right now the bosses are using intimidation a lot. In my case, I have been fired twice from my job for trying to improve conditions.

I don’t want conditions at these jobs to stay the same forever. It’s not just me or the others who are working now. A lot of new workers are going to come and start working there, and it’s going to be the same. Owners will become bigger and bigger millionaires on the backs of the people who are working there.

After I went to my first strike and started talking to other workers about their rights, they started segregating me from other workers – Spanish-speaking workers especially. I’m a good worker so it was difficult for them to fire me. They knew that if they fired me people would be all over them. So they looked for a legal way to fire me.

They fired me for giving a cookie to a kid. Unfortunately, there are no regulations and they are able to do that. They were always monitoring me with the camera waiting for me to do something ‘bad’.

How can the struggle move forward?

It’s not so easy but it’s also not impossible. There are a lot of people putting their hearts into this struggle so things can change, not only for immigrants or Latinos, but for the majority in this country. The goal is to win better working conditions, win a wage that allows us to provide for our family and have a more dignified life. We need to survive and we can’t. We are just a step away from the streets. Our kids are just a step away from drugs.

It’s really important for the people, the communities, the churches, and the politicians to be aware of the conditions, how much they pay the workers and the exploitation that’s occurring. In that respect, I think we are succeeding – people are becoming more and more aware of the conditions in fastfood.

Another of the goals is to get organised so we can win better conditions and win $15 an hour. They always try to scare people saying that the price of the food will rise and that the economy will suffer, but the economy is already very bad.

The majority of fast food workers depend on the government to survive, with food stamps or childcare. That’s another one of the goals, for workers to be able to survive on their own, but the companies don’t want that.

You supported Kshama Sawant’s campaign with a lot of enthusiasm. Why?

As a worker and student I think we need politicians who have had the same experiences and faced the same obstacles as us – especially poor people who don’t have the resources, and minorities, there are very few people who represent us. The majority in this country are poor workers who barely survive and many are people of colour. Their voice isn’t heard.

The Democrat and Republican politicians who supposedly support workers go to the pickets and rallies but then don’t do anything when there are no longer cameras. At almost every picket I see somebody who represents Kshama and I think we need people who are aware of things like her, who want to help the poor population, those who are most needy, most likely to suffer injustice, minorities.

We don’t have representatives who struggle on our behalf. There are representatives, but representatives for those who have the most. We need people who represent the working class, the people below, the minorities, those who need help.

The Committee for a Workers’ International (CWI) is the socialist international organisation to which the Socialist Party is affiliated.

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