I worked in the food service for a total of 15 years, in every possible job classification. During that time, I worked at only two large chain companies — Burger King and Starwood.
When I was 18, I spent a summer working the drive-thru in a Burger King. It was a crummy job. I remember really hating the corporate videos and I couldn’t wait to head off to college. My drive-thru window looked out at the Greyhound station across the street and I would daydream about all the places I could be going if I were not working at Burger King. The difference between my co-workers like Beulah, a single mom and a mouthful of dental problems that she could not afford to fix, and me was that I knew it was temporary.
What I didn’t know was that I had the bug — the food service bug. As soon as I left the industry, I missed it. I still miss it. In my mind, it is both my back-up plan and my dream job. When I was finishing up my Ph.D., I knew that I could always find work in food service if I didn’t get a job. And, I knew I could find a good job in food service, because my last five years in the industry were at a union hotel. In fact, as an American historian by trade, my salary prospects for many academic jobs paid less than what I would make if I went back to full-time work at the Chicago hotel.
But I would never go back to Burger King. Why? Because Burger King jobs (and other fast food jobs like it) are service sector assembly lines of low-paid work that make it impossible to support a family. It’s why Beulah is seared into my mind. I remember thinking, how the hell does she support herself and her kids by making minimum wage at Burger King? What are her options? There were none — no career ladder, no training possibilities. Beulah is likely still working at Burger King.
As of May 2012, the top three job categories in the U.S are retail salespersons, cashiers, and “combined food preparation and serving workers, including fast food.” These are also jobs that tend to be low-paid, non-union, minimal room for advancement and, more often than not, part time. In short, these jobs provide insecure employment. Yet, these are the jobs that make up our new economy, accounting for seven of every 10 jobs created since the Great Recession. What does this mean for workers and their communities?
Fast-food workers across the country walked off the job last week and struck to protest the low pay and insecurity of their industry. In more than 50 cities, in every corner of the continental United States, workers are demanding $15 an hour and the right to form a union without retaliation. These workers are not teenagers from the neighborhood; the large majority — two-thirds — are women who are earning too little to support themselves or their families. The median wage nationally for front-line fast food workers is $8.94. Yet, according to MIT’s Living Wage Calculator, workers in Cook County need to earn $10.48 an hour to support a single adult and double ($20.86 an hour) that to support a household with one adult and one child.
Why is fast food work a low wage job?
Work is gendered. Service work is women’s work. Producing goods is men’s work. The catch? Women are underpaid and undervalued in this society, and as a result, so too is the work. While traditional industrial manufacturing jobs are not returning, service work is here to stay. So we better figure out a way to turn these jobs into sustainable, middle-class type jobs.
In the 1930s, autoworkers and steelworkers were the low-wage workers of the nation. Their labor was undervalued and so was their paycheck. So what happened? They organized and formed a union. As a result, industrial jobs became steady, reliable sources of income and offered financial security to working families. This is not the case in the service sector. In the 21st century, the service sector is the new industrial sector. Service work needs to be valued by consumers, politicians and corporate America. And that value needs to be shown in dollars and cents, not a pat on the back.
So workers are rising up around the country today. And, next month, workers will likely rise up again because they are fed up.
The data is clear. Unionization improves communities. It improves workers’ lives. It improved mine.
Emily E. LB. Twarog, PhD is a professor of labor studies at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign School of Labor and Employment Relations.