Employees at Billion Dollar Companies Fight for a Living Wage

Fast food workers in New York City are back on the job after a strike that attracted national attention and “scared the heck out of the bosses,” as labor journalist Sarah Jaffe put it in an interview with Ed Schultz. The strike is one among a recent string of labor actions conducted by low-wage workers in the U.S. to fight for fair pay as well as better working conditions. Walmart workers notably took action on Black Friday, historically one of the biggest retail days of the year, while the Retail Action Project has been organizing on  behalf of workers affected by wage theft, on-call shift scheduling and other labor abuses. Meanwhile, the union UNITE HERE has been working with hotel workers at chains like Hyatt to address poor working conditions.

One in four workers in the United States is employed in a low-wage job. That includes many people in the food service industry, retail employees, janitors, hotel workers, agricultural laborers, and many others who make the U.S. economy tick; notably, many of these workers are also women and people of color, and the workers’ educational level tends to be lower than that of the general population. While this underclass labors, large companies like their employers profit, often immensely so. Growth is up for firms like Walmart, despite economic problems, indicating that their business strategy is effective.

A key part of that strategy involves underpaying their workers. With a federal minimum wage set at $7.25, far too low for the cost of living in many areas, low-wage workers are often forced to work multiple jobs while still struggling to pay the bills. In addition, they are rarely entitled to benefits like health care, retirement accounts, paid sick days, and paid time off. U.S. workers are working harder and longer than ever before, but that’s not balanced by greater productivity, just more profits for their employers.

Writing for The Atlantic, Jaffe notes that these signs of rebellion are occurring at a time when labor unions are in decline, with fewer workers protected by union membership than ever before. As workers grow frustrated with poor conditions and low wages, walkouts and similar acts of protest become an effective communication method that doesn’t just help them organize. It also helps them attract the attention of society in general, pushing people to support their cause. The series of walkouts and other labor actions across the nation in 2012 may be laying the blueprint for more aggressive labor organizing, including a push for a higher federal minimum wage.

Fighting for the rights of low-wage workers is critical, and it’s something that the nation as a whole should be supporting. Better wages equal greater opportunities for economic involvement, which could be a key component of economic recovery; more spending power for workers currently fighting to make ends meet means more demand for a range of goods. Higher wages also means fewer people depending on social services for survival, and a regrowth of the U.S. middle class.

The only thing standing in the way may be the companies who stand to lose if the minimum wage increases, and citizens must take action to counter their lobbying abilities in Congress.

Related stories:

Restaurant Chains Avoid Obamacare Costs By Hiring Part-Time Workers

Hyatt Hotel Thinks Its Workers Are Dogs

America’s Public Transportation Systems Struggle to Connect Workers to Jobs

Photo credit: SteFou!


Diane L.
Diane L.3 years ago

Ernest, RIGHT ON. If one believes in "creationism", then explain how one of the first 4 people on this planet "offed" his sibling. Wasn't he "made" to help his brother, not KILL him? And no, I'm not trying to digress this topic into a religious debate, since first of all, I don't believe in The Bible.

Ernest Roth
Ernest R.3 years ago

@ Anne M. ‘WE WERE PUT ON THIS EARTH TO HELP ONE ANOTHER.’.. No we weren’t. We were put on this earth because our biological parents had sexual contact. Your fantasies really don’t help anything.

Lika S.
Lika S.3 years ago

Well, unfortunately, some jobs are not as worth as much as others. While I am against discriminating against women and minorities, I am also not for making every job a livable wage. So, a 16 year old high school kid wants to work at McDonald's - why finish school when (s)he can make a descent living flipping burgers? That's why there are minimum wage jobs, to fit the unskilled labor. It's the way people are motivated to make something more of themselves.

Of course, minimum wage means that if you had to work that job 40 hours a week, with at least some benefits, that a single person would be able to live in a basic efficiency apartment, even if just eking by. Nothing more.

Thing is, if people are going to work full time, they should be able to get benefits.

Diane L.
Diane L.3 years ago

I had to leave Care.2 for a few minutes, so hit "add comment" before I was done, but basically, Dorothy, many truckers end up filling out their log books after their shift is over or at the end of a "trip" and often, they forget details, or like with my S.I.L., he is just too tired and decides to do it "later". Then he forgets stuff. If everything doesn't "jive", he could get "red tagged" at a weigh station. I remember about 10 years ago, he was staying with me, temporarily, trying to get a better job. He got one thru my landlord, and he worked very long hours, but locally, moving containers around the area. He had to fill out log books because it was "interstate" freight. He'd often spend 4 or 5 hours at the end of a week trying to fill out his paperwork for the previous week. He didn't get paid for that. If he had, it would have resulted in his being paid about $4/hour. He once worked 12 hours on a Saturday. I had made more in overtime the Friday night before that than he made for that entire 12 hour shift.

Diane L.
Diane L.3 years ago

Well, Dorothy, I did what I had to do in order to feed my critters and pay bills. I had been making almost $20/hour when the company I had worked for closed their doors in 1989 and I had two teenage kids, 10 horses, a mortgage, 2 big dogs, 6 cats and a car payment to make. When I earned only $8/hour, I had to work two jobs, yes, but otherwise, I would have lost everything as I was single, so nobody else to help out.

You seem to "get it" about truckers. Most drive legally, or try to. They have to fill out log books if they drive more than 100 miles from "home base" and hours are set by Federal Law. I don't remember the specifics, but it used to be 70 hrs during 8 consecutive days maximum, and that included behind the wheel, break and rest periods. It gets complicated when it's a "sleeper team". Drivers' end up jostling log books all the time,

Dorothy N.
Dorothy N.3 years ago

OMG, Diane, that's awful!

That must have just about wrecked you, two jobs driving, constant stress and having to be alert, all the time!

Bad for the back and health, with all of the sitting and traffic fumes, too.

You read about what truckdrivers are put through these days, and of course it's also unsafe, because they're so exhausted and burnt out that the likelihood of accidents increases dramatically.

If we had strong unions and governments that actually represented the people, this wouldn't happen.

And it's so ridiculous when people have to work two jobs to survive, especially when industrialization and productivity increased profits so much - progressively all sucked up to the top, with the mouths of the kine treading the grain firmly bound, even to the point of starvation.

All the human advances we made to achieve a democratic ideal (if not, perhaps, the reality) just wasted...

Tricia Hamilton
Tricia Hamilton3 years ago

You are raising the price of food but not raising the salaries of who works for you. What the hell is this all about?

Diane L.
Diane L.3 years ago

(cut off).......... he could get off work at noon on Monday and be called back at 8:00 P.M. that same day, as only 8 hours has to expire "between" shifts. Then on Wednesday, he might have to report at 5:00 P.M. and work until 1 or 2 A.M. for a day or two, and back on the other shift the next day. Law only requires 8 hours off, and a maximum number of hours "behind the wheel" a week, so he's always in a total state of exhaustion. He can't retire because he's only 49, although he looks 70, not to mention the company doesn't have a pension program, so all he could get is S.S. once he turns 65. My daughter has nagged him to get another job, but where? He's no "spring chicken" anymore.

Diane L.
Diane L.3 years ago

Yes, Dorothy, I knew "it was time" to retire when I'd get up and leave for work (worked graveyard shift) and halfway there, I'd turn around and go home and call in SICK. The stress was beginning to be too much. Good thing I left when I did or I would have simply been out of a job soon, I think. I retired in 2004 and talked to a former co-worker recently (she just retired) and said that the office went from over 50 people on 3 shifts to just 3!

Ever heard of Motorways or Atomic Transportation? I worked for both during my 10 years of non-union jobs "in between". Motorways was based in Vancouver, B.C., and Atomic in Winnipeg. When I worked at Motorways, I got $8/hour. I had to deliver pizza at night to make ends meet. There were two hourly drivers who came in from Vancouver and they were Teamsters. They got about $.35/hour more than drivers here in the U.S. got because of the exchange rate and they had to at least be paid Teamster wages. The OTR drivers got very little, so they drove as many hours as possible, same as the ones from Atomic, most of which were East Indians or Pakistanis. My S.I.L. works for DCC Chambers. He's been with them for almost 5 years and just recently got health care benefits, but he also has premiums come out of his paycheck. They change his hours constantly. In this country, that wouldn't be legal. For example, he could get off work at noon on Monday and be called back at 8:00 P.M. that same day, as only 8 hours has to expire "betwee

Dorothy N.
Dorothy N.3 years ago

Lol, Diane, one of the nicest birthday gifts you can have is not looking your age!

I've been hearing terrible things about the trucking industry for some time, good job you're out of it, and my sympathy to your son-in-law.

In one sense, I suppose corporations are rather like people - they'll often behave the way they're expected/permitted to.

If things like discrimination, worker abuses and low wages aren't acceptable in one area, they won't happen, and the business will likely do better, since more people are likely to be able to afford whatever they're selling.

We have Red Lobster and other businesses here in Canada that have to pay full minimum wages that in some US States insisted they barely made it paying wait staff wages of, I believe, $2.13 and couldn't handle paying paying more - and they seem to be managing just fine here and are all over the place.

But regarding Walmart, a lot of the business losses were actually from places which hadn't been bought out, but driven under by lower prices in part possible by the bulk buying large chains are capable of, and in part by the low wages paid employees, so while this might not have occurred in your area, it is something that did in many other places.

They could afford to pay better in the areas they don't, and it would make one heck ofa difference not only to their workers but to the economy, as they're apparently the largest employer in the states.