People used to understand that “flipping burgers” was not terminal employment. It was assumed that a job at McDonald’s was a temporary fill-in-the-gaps-to-make-ends-meet kind of job. But apparently a huge number of employees for various fast food chains are going on strike in order to pressure their employers to raise minimum wage to what they call a living wage: $15/hour.
When I turned fifteen, I got a job bagging groceries at Kroger. I got paid minimum wage, which was $5.15/hour at the time. Between that and tips, I made about $175 a week. It wasn’t much, but I didn’t need to live off of it. I was just getting work experience and paying for little luxuries. After more than a year, Kroger gave me a raise—to $5.25 an hour. They also made me a cashier. Which meant I had more responsibility, but didn’t make any tips. My raise amounted to less per day than one tip.
So I quit. And got another job. I’m pretty sure Kroger didn’t care. The store probably had another young employee hired at minimum wage before the automatic doors could reclose behind me. And I didn’t care either. I didn’t expect to make a career working at a grocery store.
The mostly free market is a weird thing. When unemployment is high, companies can be more competitive with their wages. This helps them keep prices low. It helps them make money. Making money is the reason they exist, so it’s not a bad thing at all for them to make money if the rest of us count on them for a service.
On the other hand, happy, productive employees are necessary for a profitable company. The most successful companies are the ones people actually want to work for. This is basic common sense. A potential customer would rather pay a little more for very good service in a clean, cheerful place than deal with surly grumps in a dumpy roach motel where you’re pretty sure spittle might be a main ingredient in the “special” sauce. Paradoxically, chasing after the bottom line as your only concern is not the way to fatten your bottom line. Companies that share some of their profits generously with their employees and don’t nickel and dime their customers will prosper. This prosperity might take some time to register. It’s not a quick buck. But it is sure.
All that said, I don’t agree with the idea of a minimum wage, so I certainly don’t think a living wage is right either. Companies pay what work is worth to them. Right now, unemployment is high, so jobs (like in the fast food industry) that require no skills, no experience, and no education are not going to garner high wages. Ever. The current minimum wage is not unfair to fast food workers. Which means that raising the minimum wage will just raise prices. If McDonald’s starts paying people $15 an hour to drop fries into oil, do you think any low-skill workers will be working anywhere else? Not if they can help it. So prices everywhere will rise. For the same people who got the higher wage. Which will result in the higher wage not being a living wage anymore.
Higher wages are paid for jobs that fewer people can compete for—jobs that require less common skills. If workers at McDonald’s want to get these kinds of jobs, they need to work for them. They need to pursue them. Because the right to pursue them is the only thing they’re promised.