The Low Pay Behind America’s Fast Food: Strike Puts Fast-Food Workers’ Struggle in Spotlight

“And what else do we have to lose…? I mean, we’re already dying slowly in our day-to-day lives, so why not speak up and stand up and let the nation know that we’re suffering? And this is really a cry for help. And this great nation shouldn’t turn their back on working-class people who need help” –Terrance Wise, Kansas City Fast-food Striker

Recently fast-food workers have forced the issue of their low-paying jobs into the public spotlight. Josh Eidelson reports that starting in November 2012 about 200 fast-food employees from multiple chains went on strike in New York City. In an April 2013 follow-up strike participation doubled. In May, fast food workers went on strike in Seattle. With the backing of the Service Employees International Union and other local allies, the strikes spread from NYC to five other cities including Chicago, St. Louis, Detroit, and Milwaukee, Kansas City, and Flint, Michigan. Eidelson contends that “this is by far the largest strike by fast-food workers in the history of the United States.”

Pre-Labor Day protests are scheduled to take place in 35 cities on August 29. This week, organizers intend to expand the campaign into southern and West Coast cities. Workers’ demands include a “living wage”—a raise to $15 per hour—and freedom to unionize. In the process of making these fundamental demands, fast-food strikers are also challenging customers to consider the lives of the human beings behind the counters.

An American Tradition

Fast-food workers have become an important part of Americans’ culinary lives. According to a 2013 study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Americans received 11-percent of their calories from fast-food between 2007 and 2010. As the CDC puts it, “As lifestyles become more hectic, fast-food consumption has become a growing part of the American diet.”

According to Scarborough Research, 43 percent of surveyed adults had visited McDonald’s in the last 30 days, 22 percent had visited Wendy’s, 21 percent visited Burger King, and 20 percent visited Taco Bell. Those defined as “health-conscious consumers” also frequently visited fast-food chains: 36 percent had visited McDonald’s, 22 percent had visited Wendy’s, 17 percent had visited Taco Bell, and 16-percent had visited Burger King.

In fact, a survey by Placed Insights found that as of April 2013 fast food chains were among the top-ten most visited businesses in the U.S., with McDonald’s ranking first, Subway second, Burger King fifth, Wendy’s sixth, and Taco Bell ninth.

Fast-food ad campaigns have long encouraged customers to embrace egocentrism, seeing each individual consumer as the center of the world. For years Wendy’s told customers to “Do what tastes right.” Between 1975 and 1979 McDonald’s told customers, “We do it all for you.” In the 1990s, the company promised, “What you want is what you get.” Summing it up best, Burger King’s consistent slogan has been: “Have it your way.” An ad explaining the slogan reads, “You have the right to have what you want, exactly when you want it. Because on the menu of life, you are ‘Today’s Spec

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