Harper’s Goes Long on the Fast Food Strikes


Now, everyone knows how poorly fast-food jobs pay. They also know why this is supposed to be okay: fast-food workers are teenagers, they don’t have kids or college degrees, and it’s an entry-level job. Hell, it’s virtually a form of national service, the economic boot camp that has replaced the two years our fathers had to give to the armed forces.

Every one of these soothing shibboleths was contradicted by what I saw in North Carolina. These days, fast-food workers are often adults, they often do have children, and I met at least one college grad among the protesters in Raleigh. Why are things like this? Because a job is a job, and in times as lean as ours, the Golden Arches may be the only game in town, regardless of qualifications and degrees.

What people who repeat these things also don’t know is how much effort has gone into keeping fast-food pay so low, despite the enormous profits raked in by the chains. In fact, the conditions of employment have been engineered almost as carefully as the brands and the burgers — engineered to achieve the complete interchangeability of workers.

We’ve been covering the fast food/low-wages strikes occurring across the country, and for today (or for your reading list this weekend) add Thomas Frank’s Harper’s story to your list, who visited North Carolina earlier this summer to report on the strikes.

Photo: M. Peinado

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22 Comments / Post A Comment

jquick (#3,730)

If you really, truly, want a job, there’s jobs out there. My Safeway is having a hard time finding workers cuz no one really wants to work, which means cleaning up the eggs that someone dropped, coming to work when you are supposed to…on time and mentally clear to work…. Jobs are there in your hometown, OR go to where the jobs are. Texas, Alaska, N Dakota. If you’re an adult working fast food, it’s your own fault.

beet hummus (#946)

That still doesn’t change the fact that $7.25/hr is typically not enough to keep pace with the cost of living in the US.

EDaily (#4,396)

@jquick Anecdotal evidence is not data. One in five fast food workers are living in poverty. How easy is it to move to Texas, or Alaska, or North Dakota when you can barely afford to buy groceries?

@jquick Moving is not an insignificant expense, either. The rental markets in places that are booming like North Dakota and Fort MacMurray, AB are INSANE. People are living in sheds and trailers. So moving is not a panacea and instant problem-solver, especially if you are already living paycheck-to-paycheck.

Allison (#4,509)

@jquick Meanwhile, Safeway is closing all 72 of the Dominick’s locations in the Chicago area.

EvanDeSimone (#2,101)

@jquick It’s a pretty big fallacy to assume that people are totally free to move anywhere at any time in the name of opportunity. People have financial limitations to prevent them to from relocating at will, to say nothing of human connections to family and friends.

Meaghano (#529)

@EvanDeSimone Guess they should have studied STEM…

EvanDeSimone (#2,101)

@Meaghano Possible new education initiative: All students who fail to study for STEM careers are legally prohibited to have friends.

honey cowl (#1,510)

@jquick Hahahhaaaa what?

WayDownSouth (#3,431)

@jquick I agree. It’s easy to complain and more difficult to take action to improve your financial situation. The cost and inconvenience of relocating is an investment. Some people will have the self-belief and initiative to do this. More power to them.

EDaily (#4,396)

@WayDownSouth Organizing for better wages IS taking action to improve your financial situation—for yourself and for others like you. The federal minimum wage has been unchanged for the past five years—not even keeping up with inflation. Lots of Republicans, including the one who ran for president last time around, agree that at the very least that it should rise with inflation.

And organizing is effective—it’s happening all across the country. It was low-wage workers, with the support of voters, who got the minimum wage raised to $10 an hour in San Jose earlier this year. They did it by taking action and not waiting for the federal government, which is still dragging its feet about this. More power to them.

WayDownSouth (#3,431)

@EDaily yes, I agree with you. Unionising can definitely result in better outcomes.

I was thinking about the original poster’s reference to relocating. Yes, it is inconvenient to relocate to a better job market and there are obstacles. That said, I’ve done so twice and will move again if needed.

jquick (#3,730)

@EvanDeSimone I knew I’d get backlash from most people on this site, thus my “really, truly want a job” comment. If you truly want to work, you do what you need to do, even if that means moving away from friends and family and taking a bus with one suitcase in hand. Plenty of jobs in Texas with super cheap rent. You could go to Alaska and have a nice job next week. I have 4 friends who’ve done this (Fairbanks and anchorage). Re ND, yes, hard to find a place to live, but even a waitress makes $800/day. And if the sh*t came down for me financially, I’d get in a car, drive there, sleep in my car and shower at the gym. But then, I’m old school and worked 3 jobs while at uni studying….STEM.

@jquick Congratulations, how wonderful.

EvanDeSimone (#2,101)

@jquick I think it’s a bit reductive to say that anyone who is unable to find a job that provides a living wage simply doesn’t want to work badly enough. It’s certainly true the opportunities for employment vary by region, but as many others have stated there is an opportunity cost to relocating. Cars and gas and rent all cost money that many low wage workers can’t afford. Furthermore many in low wage positions have familial obligations that limit their mobility. It’s substantially more difficult to relocate if you have children for instance, or elderly parents that require care.

Your own hard work is certainly impressive as is your willingness to sacrifice comfort for opportunity, but I don’t think it’s fair or accurate to attribute poverty solely to some perceived weakness of character.

DebtOrAlive (#5,233)

@jquick Can we turn the smugness down a notch (or five)? Pretty please?

1. This obsession with STEM. Let it go. I love STEM (well the ST part anyways). I graduated from one of the top universities in the world with a degree in a STEM field. It was never slog for me because I liked it (which, by the way, is not true for other folks AND THAT’S OKAY). I worked as a researcher. I held down at least 1 other actual job the entire duration of college. I am published. And after long enough I realized I didn’t like STEM more than I hated being poor. And so I left STEM and doubled my salary.

I’ve gathered that you’re in you’re mid-50s? The current market for STEM graduates bears absolutely no resemblance (to use a number: ZERO) to the market you faced when you entered. STEM is not magical fairy dust, and to be sure, there were a lot of people who started off as STEM majors who realized “Hey I hate this and I suck at this and I would like to graduate with more than a 2.0 so I have a chance at a job” and again, THAT’S OKAY.

DebtOrAlive (#5,233)

@jquick

2. Self-belief and initiative don’t pay the bills and won’t pass a credit check. If shit hit the fan, you’d get in a car, drive, sleep in the car, and shower at they gym? Good for you! That’s shows you’ve got grit and determination. It also shows you’ve got a car reliable enough to get you across the country ($$$), insurance cause, you know, THE LAW ($$$), gas to get you there and as well as back and forth to work before you get your first paycheck ($$$), and a gym membership ($$$). And sometimes, since we’re being real, having brown or black skin doesn’t allow you to blend into places and not be noticed for sleeping in your car. Just saying.

3. And this is the BIGGIE. Having overcome incredible odds (I’m really really REALLY hoping you have and have had to make hard choices and are not making these recommendations from a position of ever comfortable privilege cause whoa the latter would be a really sh*tty thing to do), should make you more, not less, empathetic. I know work. I worked since before I was legally allowed to in my state. I’ve roofed houses in midday Mississippi summer heat, cleared dry California brush. Literally cried myself to sleep because my back hurt so much. Back in college, I squeezed in jobs between the end of the spring semester cause, well, bills still gotta get paid. Other times, I caught a lucky break with work and someone recognized how much value I added. And while I am so thankful that that happened, I know that people of equal or more grit and determination have not caught those breaks. I know that there but for the grace of God I would be in their shoes. And frankly, I still could if things turned south.

DebtOrAlive (#5,233)

@all Sorry that got way rant-ier than I intended.

WayDownSouth (#3,431)

It was an amusing story. Capitalists bad. Workers good. Pick-up drivers bad. Truckers good. Republicans bad. Unions good. And so on.

The writer did raise one interesting point. As the technology improves, these jobs will be automated. Increasing the cost of labour increases the incentives to automate. I was hoping to read more on this point.

Eric18 (#4,486)

@WayDownSouth “It was an amusing story. Capitalists bad. Workers good. Pick-up drivers bad. Truckers good. Republicans bad. Unions good. And so on.”

Isn’t that every article in Harper’s? And Rolling Stone? And The Guardian?

WayDownSouth (#3,431)

@Eric18 indeed. I’ll go check out the New York Times and Washington Post to get the conservative perspective on this issue :)

Eric18 (#4,486)

@WayDownSouth Haha, yep!

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