If you stop by a Chicago-area McDonald’s restaurant today, you might get something more than just a Big Mac: a moral question about the rights of workers to earn a living wage.
At McDonald’s locations across the city, fast-food workers are protesting what they say are unfair pay practices by the world’s largest restaurant chain. The protests are part of a movement to highlight the dangers of growing inequality and the gap between profits and wages at some of the world’s biggest companies.
An organization known as “Fight for 15” is helping to coordinate today’s protests at three downtown restaurants and a number of retail establishments. The group is demanding an hourly wage of $15.00 from companies such as McDonalds, Whole Foods and Sears, along with the right to union representation without retaliation.
Fight for 15 argues global companies are “raking in enormous profits while workers like us, mostly adults with families, don’t get paid enough to cover basic needs like food, rent, health care and transportation.”
In 2012, for example, McDonald’s reported a net income of $5.5 billion. The company’s estimated 760,000 U.S. employees often earn wages at or near minimum wage, which is $7.25 an hour nationally and $8.25 an hour in Illinois.
A 40-hour workweek at the national minimum wage equates to $15,000 a year. The government defines the poverty level for a family of four at $23,050.
Across the country, there’s a growing awareness of the dangers of economic inequality and the difficulty for workers attempting to live on minimum wage. President Obama, Democratic members of Congress and advocacy groups alike are highlighting the need for a higher national minimum wage and better treatment of fast-food workers.
Today’s actions follow similar protests held nationwide on Black Friday outside a number of Wal-Mart locations calling for higher wages at the country's largest private retailer.
Beyond individual stories and the morality of workers struggling to feed themselves and their families lies an equally fundamental and damaging truth: growing inequality is bad for everyone.
In 2012, 3.6 million workers nationwide had wages at or below the federal minimum. While these workers are often young, a growing number represent adults with families and senior citizens struggling through retirement.
A recent survey shows the gap between rich and poor in the US is wider than ever, with the richest 1 percent of the population received almost a fifth of national households income in 2012, breaking the previous record set in 1928.
The societal effects of growing inequality are widespread, and growing. A 2011 paper by the International Monetary Fund calculated that a 10 percent decrease in income inequality meant that periods of economic growth were sustained 50 percent longer.
Concentrated wealth also tends to increase the likelihood of stock market bubbles, reduce the level of spending needed to recover from a recession and make it harder for poor Americans to educate themselves and their children or start or improve a business.
Opponents of raising the minimum wage often say doing so destroys jobs. Yet the evidence for this is hardly clear. A number of recent studies have shown that although raising the minimum wage does increase earnings and reduce poverty, it has a limited, almost negligible, effect on employment.
From a business standpoint, studies have also shown higher wages tend to reduce worker turnover and increase productivity.
Movements for fundamental social change often require a long, sustained push on public awareness on many fronts before what was once seen as commonplace is no longer considered acceptable. For proof, just look at how public perception has changed over the years on everything from drunk driving to marriage quality.
Of course, the movement for a higher minimum wage and greater worker dignity has proved to be an uphill battle. But what’s becoming clear is that a movement is coalescing around the issue that could one day reach a tipping point.
After all, when’s the last time you had to think about morality when you opened the door of a McDonald’s?