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Unions need a broader focus than wages and job conditions

We need to raise the minimum wage and we should use fast-food workers' campaign to launch a conversation about corporate greed and the proliferation of low-paying jobs.

September 09, 2013|Sandy Banks
  • Shawdrica Simmons, left, and Shatoria Simmons of Detroit work on a cardboard cutout of a distressed black woman during the annual AFL-CIO convention at the Convention Center.
Shawdrica Simmons, left, and Shatoria Simmons of Detroit work on a cardboard… (Gina Ferazzi, Los Angeles…)

AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka had thousands of union activists on their feet, applauding his utopian ideal.

"People who work deserve to make enough to live and enjoy the good life," Trumka told the crowd in his speech Monday at the labor federation's convention in Los Angeles.

We ought to value work, not wealth, he said. "No matter what your education level, you should have the opportunity to grow and retire comfortably."

His speech offered an inspiring vision of shared prosperity. But if that vision rests on paying fast-food workers $15 an hour, it seems more a mirage than a likely reality.

Fast-food workers have become the current face of a resurging labor movement. Employees of fast-food restaurants in cities across the country have been striking, protesting and rallying for pay raises that would practically double their average hourly wage.

My heart is with the workers; the industry's typical take-home pay leaves many stranded in poverty with no room for advancement.

But my mind rebels when I contemplate what a raise like that suggests about our priorities and the value of an educated populace.

How do you justify paying $15 an hour for someone to bag fries? That's almost on par with the average hourly wage of a paramedic, whose job involves saving lives.

I do applaud the audacity of the workers' demands. We need to raise the national minimum wage, now $7.25 an hour, beyond even the $9 that President Obama is asking Congress to approve. And we ought to use this fast-food campaign to launch a public conversation about the link between corporate greed and the proliferation of low-paying jobs.

But there's another national conversation that we need to have.

With wages dropping and jobs disappearing for college-educated workers, how do we square $15 an hour at McDonald's with our country's message that education is the best and surest way into the middle class?

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The fast-food workers' plight is a reflection of the tumble we have taken during the last five years of recession-battered economics.

Most of the jobs lost during that period were in professions that offered the prospect of middle-class wages. But nearly 70% of the jobs gained in the ongoing recovery have been in low-paying service industries.

That has turned fast-food work from a short-term, entry-level indignity to a pseudo-career that's expected to sustain a household.

In case you haven't noticed while idling at the drive-through, McDonald's is no longer the province of teenage employees. The average age of fast-food workers today is 28. More than 80% are adults, and many are their families' primary wage-earners.

That imbalance is a societal problem that a pay increase won't fix.

The fact that so many grown-ups are forced to survive by flipping burgers shows how brutal our economy has become, and how limited employment prospects are for unskilled or uneducated adults.

It also blocks a path for the young people who ought to be working those jobs.

Unemployment among teenagers is hovering at near-historic highs. The consequences of that lack of opportunity will ripple through their lives. Research shows that adolescent employment pays long-term dividends, leading to higher-paying jobs when those teenagers become adults.

That's because they are earning more than a paycheck and picking up more than hamburger-flipping skills. They are learning to work as a team with strangers, to budget their money and their time, to manage the angry customer who didn't get his curly fries.

They are learning that if they don't want to spend a lifetime handing Big Macs across the counter, they might want to aim for college or prepare for a more satisfying career.

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We don't have to keep fast-food workers down so that paramedics can rise.

But we undercut our message that preparation matters when we pay the cashier at Carl's Jr. more than my college-educated daughter earns teaching writing to low-income middle-school students — so they can go to college.

That's the kind of challenge that an evolving labor movement must tackle. Raising the wages for fast-food workers will burnish the union's profile, but it won't solve the deeper problems contributing to a widening gap in this country between the haves and have-nots.

The labor movement needs to broaden its focus beyond wages and working conditions and engage new allies to restore its political clout.

I think Trumka's on the right track. He's advocating a new approach to counteract shrinking union power by reaching past economic concerns and partnering with community groups to promote social justice: stronger schools, immigration reform and the protection of voting rights.

Unions ought to be cultivating new members not by promising fat paychecks for jobs that anyone can do, but by backing affordable job training that will lead to satisfying careers, and by demystifying their own apprenticeship programs so that young people don't need connections to learn well-paying vocational skills.

Let's prepare this next generation so McDonald's won't have to be a career, but a stop en route to better things.

sandy.banks@latimes.com

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