Low-wage workers are fighting for more than just money

Commentary: Strikers at fast-food chains and big-box stores demand respect and freedom from abusive labor practices

Demonstrators march and block traffic at a major intersection outside a Wal-Mart store during rush hour, Sept. 5, 2013, in Hyattsville, Md.
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

"$15 an hour and a union!" is the new rallying cry for low-wage workers across the country. Fast-food employees in seven cities, from New York City to St. Louis, walked off their jobs for four days in July at chains like McDonald's, KFC and Wendy's. Walmart employees gathered to protest at the retailer's shareholder meeting in June, continuing a campaign of grass-roots activism that started last fall against the company. And just Monday a major strike of Seattle grocery-store workers was narrowly avoided.

The obvious problem low-wage workers face is inadequate pay; that is why their first demand is $15 per hour. But they also want a say in their work, hence the second demand, for a union. This dimension often goes unnoticed in the conversation, but the experience of working low-wage jobs is just as important as what they pay. These workers are fighting not just for higher pay but also for a labor market that brings them an element of dignity.

A recent survey of New York City fast-food workers found that 84 percent of them had experienced wage theft — the withholding of pay for work-related time for which they should be compensated. For example, workers may have to stay late after their shift ends or show up before it starts to count a register but their employers do not pay them for that time. Or bosses may take money out of workers' paychecks for work-related expenses or fees that were not disclosed to the worker at hiring. Or workers may not get access to promised breaks or may be required to work overtime without compensation. These abuses are particularly pernicious because low-wage workers typically do not have the time or resources to challenge their bosses legally.

Low-wage workers also face the hassle of inconsistent and random work schedules. Bosses often require employees to be on call and phone in to check whether they are needed that day. Not knowing their schedule in advance makes it incredibly difficult for workers to do anything else, from arranging child care to working a second job for additional income. For those having trouble making ends meet, this kind of uncertainty is difficult to manage.

Workers can even find it difficult to get paid in a way that is not abusive. Some low-wage employers are moving to remunerate workers with paid debit cards that carry high and opaque fees, even to do basic things like check balances.

Most low-paying jobs have little room for upward mobility. According to the National Employment Law Project, only about 2.2 percent of jobs in fast food qualify as managerial, professional or technical, effectively barring workers from climbing the corporate ladder. These jobs are also missing the most basic of benefits, such as paid sick days. The work can be dangerous as well. Mac McClelland, in an eye-opening Mother Jones report last year about working in a warehouse for Internet commerce, showed how much of that work is miserable, with workers fainting from heat exhaustion or being fired for simply speaking to another employee.

To be perpetually on call prevents workers from having their own lives, either for themselves or for sharing with family, children, elders and the broader community.

Appealing to the dignity of work to address such problems may strike some as a fruitless academic exercise, too cerebral for the harsh reality of low-wage labor. But the problems these workers face should offend America's core values.

Wage theft violates the dense network of contracts on which our commerce and markets depend. Bosses' breaking promises to people who are unable to challenge them undermines equality and fairness. The inability to schedule makes it difficult for people not only to juggle child care and other jobs but also to manage and cultivate their private lives in civil society. To be perpetually on call, unpaid, prevents workers from truly having their own lives, either for themselves or for sharing with family, children, elders and the broader community. 

So how can we address these problems? Raising the minimum wage would do a lot. An extensive body of research argues that setting a minimum wage slightly above $10 per hour would have very little impact on employment. But it would kill job vacancies by attracting people to positions they would not fill at lower pay. It would also reduce turnover in low-wage labor markets; workers would stay with their jobs longer. This would make low-wage work a tighter labor market, which means workers would have more power to bargain over working conditions.

The fight to raise the minimum wage is nigh impossible at the federal level for the time being. But cities and states can take action. Within their jurisdictions, they can enact not only a higher minimum wage but also mandatory benefits. New York City recently required employers to provide paid sick days, joining Seattle, San Francisco, Washington and Portland, Ore. Public protests can play a role as well. The outraged response to stories about McDonald's using high-fee debit cards to pay workers convinced the company to roll back that policy.

Meanwhile the weak economy has undermined workers' bargaining power. If unemployment were lower, employees could switch jobs more easily and could be more aggressive with demands over wages and work conditions. However, getting unemployment down rapidly has fallen off the political radar. Even worse, the move to austerity, particularly with this year's budget sequestration — automatic federal spending cuts locked in by 2011's Budget Control Act — has put massive pressures on the economy as a whole and postponed a full recovery.

These are all important, but they are reactive and do not directly empower workers on the front lines. The difficult work environment is so inherent in the way labor markets have evolved in the early 21st century that they will require a more comprehensive approach. The only way to truly combat these problems is for workers to have a formal means of input in their work environment more expansive than the right to quit.

Opinions expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of Al Jazeera America.

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