Border Cantos is a timely, new and free exhibit now on view at Crystal Bridges.
By the time this is published, McDonald's workers from the Central Arkansas area will have started their 24-hour strike together with workers in hundreds of other cities across the nation. You may have caught the news in September when fast-food workers and community supporters blocked Broadway to demand a living wage and the right to form a union. Little Rock was one of 150 cities across the United States to join in the September day of action as part of the "Fight for 15" campaign. National organizers from the Service Employees International Union supported the one-day "flash strikes" and street blockades here and in several other cities across the region.
Folks may wonder why workers continue to push for higher wages when Arkansan voters approved an increase in the state minimum wage only weeks ago. Approval of the ballot initiative — which will raise Arkansas's floor wage to $8.50 by 2017 — was an overwhelming victory. However, $8.50 an hour is simply not enough, especially given that most fast-food workers are hired as part-time employees so that companies can avoid paying benefits.
Even with full-time hours, the new Arkansas minimum wage will still be well under the poverty line for a family of three. Despite those who desperately want to prove otherwise, U.S. Census Bureau statistics show that a significant portion of low-wage workers in the fast- food industry are middle-aged people trying to support families, not teenagers. Today, the average age of a worker in the fast-food industry is 29.
The minimum wage has increased at an appallingly slow rate over the past 50 years. Adjusted for inflation, the minimum wage in 1968 would be $10.98 per hour today. One key distinction between the referendum on the ballot in Arkansas this year and the fast-food worker movement is that workers are asking their employers to do the right thing independently, without needing instruction from the government. Take some of the billions that McDonald's rakes in every year in profit and the millions it pays top executives, they're saying, and ensure that everyone serving the company is able to put quality food on the table and a roof over their heads.
Those involved with Fight for 15 also point out the discrepancy in wages across countries in which McDonald's operates. For example, a fast-food worker in Denmark makes a minimum of $20 hourly, in addition to paid sick leave and the right to unionize. Even accounting for the higher cost of living in Denmark, workers there report that their wages place them solidly in the middle class. Basic survival is not a daily struggle like it is for many low-wage workers in the U.S. To head off those who worry about costs being passed down to the consumer, the Big Mac in Denmark costs on average only 35 cents more than the same sandwich here.
In the past year, Seattle and San Francisco approved ordinances to increase their citywide minimum wage to $15 per hour over the next several years, meeting the demands of the fast-food workers' movement. Of course, Little Rock is no Seattle, but workers in our city also deserve a living wage. It's breathtaking to watch workers who have everything to lose putting themselves publicly on the line for the dignity they need and deserve. The sparks in their eyes and the spirit with which they are working together is something no one imagined even two years ago. But they're here and they're organized and the movement is only growing. They are joining forces with workers from other low-wage sectors to demand a more just economy. Just wait until spring.
Hundreds of courageous people new to this kind of action in our state are seizing the opportunity to make their voices heard. It's not easy; low-wage workers who operate without the protection of a union are vulnerable to unfair treatment on a daily basis. Their ongoing struggles compel them to fight for change. This is the moment to stand in support of our neighbors and fellow citizens who will strike this week and commit themselves to action for the long term.
Acadia Roher is an organizer with Little Rock Collective Liberation and other social justice groups in Central Arkansas.
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