Fast Food: Convenience Vs Economic Injustice

Thousands of fast food workers across the United States have walked out in protest of low pay and working conditions. The protests form part of an ongoing dispute that has been quietly behind the scenes for over a year, but this weekend’s action saw the workers gain some publicity. It is thought that workers picketed restaurants across 58 cities. One of the largest took place in New York, where an estimated 400 protestors staged a demonstration inside a McDonald’s. Among the chains targeted are Kentucky Fried Chicken, McDonald’s, Burger King; as well as American chains Taco Bell and Wendy’s. The protestors are demanding $15 an hour and the right to form a union without retaliation. They received sympathy from other workers who do not receive recognition for the jobs they do: employees of Wal-Mart, Macy’s, Dollar Tree and Sears. Car washes and port-trucking companies also expressed support for the movement.

Hard times mean more strikes. Last November, 200 employees from fast food outlets across New York went on strike. Other cities followed in April, June and July. This may be the latest in many strikes to come, but this time the employees had history on their side: the protest date coincided with the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, where Martin Luther King delivered his famous ‘I Have a Dream’ speech. The march was just as much about protesting against economic injustice as civil rights, though that is often overlooked.

An increasing number of low-wage jobs such as these are being created while the world recovers from the credit crunch. The US fast food industry is now estimated to be worth $200bn (£128bn). Those taking up the jobs are adults who have found themselves on hard times, and as a result have taken jobs that used to be considered for teenagers. This is why the Simpsons creator Matt Groening made us laugh with his caricature of the fast food worker, known as the ‘squeaky-voiced-teen’ (not even worthy of a name). The joke is now on those who laughed at him, since teenagers who stayed with fast food companies are now likely to be the boss of those older (and quite probably wiser) than themselves. As an undergraduate, I heard the joke “What do you say to a history graduate?” “Burger and chips please!” After the credit crunch, it stopped being a joke for many leaving university.

Traditionally, those employed in roles such as these have been temporary, are only employed part-time and are often immigrants. This practical difficulty means they are difficult to organise and therefore difficult to unionise. The large corporations they work for have also traditionally ‘discouraged’ union efforts, leaving the workforce with no real voice. And obviously, political apathy is also damaging: unions themselves have become unpopular. The figures show that fewer Americans are members of a union: having fallen from 25% in 1980 to 11.5%.

Reuters reported that Scott DeFife, executive vice president of policy and government affairs of the National Restaurant Association, said: “Only five percent of restaurant employees earn the minimum wage and those that do are predominantly working part-time and half are teenagers.” According to the National Employment Law Project, the average wage for fast food workers is $8.94 (£5.75) an hour.

Economic injustice is believed to mainly affect those in developing countries. In Britain, social class informs our understanding of economic injustice at home. These statistics, however, should make us reconsider that position and should spur us into choosing justice over convenience.

Convenience has led to ‘better’ becoming synonymous with ‘easier’. This false equivalency has infected a number of other elements of our world: from the media, where programmes insist on blending information and entertainment in such a way the result is dumbed-down rubbish. It has hurt our conception of families, where it is ‘better’ to get divorced rather than work at a marriage. This has left behind a generation of broken families.

The best way to overcome this – and I do mean best – is with our attitudes and our wallets. Firstly, we should treat fast food workers as people. This idea is utterly foreign to some, who must believe that those employed in such roles must have forfeited some of their rights when they signed up. Human beings should have inherent dignity, and that must be respected by everyone. A job is a job, and sadly when people see a uniform they often think they are somehow above the person wearing it.

Secondly, if we really believe in something, we should put our money where our mouth is. This is very easy to do if you’ve ever seen how fast food restaurants create their food – you will be so repulsed by the process whereby beakless, featherless ‘chickens’ get turned into slop you won’t want to eat it. Nevertheless, if that doesn’t put you off and you still want an end to the exploitation of workers you shouldn’t support that system. That is the alternative that will be most effective. There are plenty of alternatives and we, as a politically conscious people, should embrace that instead.