Aljazeera America reports that McDonald’s has taken down a controversial website that offered “helpful” advice to low wage employees. In the recent past, the website has come under fire for advising employees to earn money selling things on E-Bay and how to tip a pool cleaner. The final straw hit close to home for the hamburger giant when the website, which is operated by a third party, told employees to stop eating fast food because it was unhealthy. Something tells me that the company responsible for that bit of wisdom no longer works for McDonald’s.
Rather than try to tell low wage workers how to live on less, companies like McDonald’s should be leaders in paying a living way. Would food cost more at the restaurant? It would. Would investors earn less on McDonald’s? Probably. Might franchise owners and corporate leaders need to take a pay cut? They would. Those are the costs. What about the benefits? Low wage workers would be pumping more into the economy. McDonald’s would be able to recruit better talent. Rather than give employees bad advice about how to live on less, it’s time to pay a living wage.
Normally on Sundays I write about issues outside of the world of careers and work. But today I read a letter in the Chicago Sun-Times that made my blood boil. John Babush of Big Rock, Illinois defended the disparity in pay between CEOs and front line workers, citing the example that McDonald’s CEO makes in an hour what it takes a minimum wage worker three and a half months to make.
Babush’s first point is stunning – stunningly absurd: “How many hours do you think he or she [a minimum wage worker] would last in that job [CEO]?” No one who supports a living wage suggests that front line workers should be paid what their mangers are making much less what a CEO of a Fortune 50 company should be compensated. The question is one of degree. In the 1970s, CEOs in the U.S. earned 30-50:1 to the average employee salary. Now that ratio is often 250-300:1. Mr. Babush says we are asking the wrong question. He needs to go back to school for a little training in logic.
Worse still, Babush writes: “Anybody working a minimum wage job, should they want more income, ought to do whatever necessary to increase their value to their employer. If that doesn’t work, do whatever is necessary to makes oneself a potentially valuable asset to another employer. Keep it up and one day that minimum-wage worker might end up a CEO.” Is it possible to follow this map to success? Sure – for the very lucky few. Most successful people in the U.S. today had parents who were also successful. Fewer and fewer children born into poverty have options to rise from the class into which they were born.
“Do whatever is necessary”? Nice advice. It fits well in the myth of American Exceptionalism which conservatives like to push as a rationalization for the wealth distribution they claim to hate. Since the 1980s, middle class and working class people have seen their earnings fall, especially for those without a college degree. In the same period, the most wealth Americans have seen their incomes go up and up. Babush’s model of working hard sounds great, but is it possible in an economy where most of the new jobs pay $15 or less? Is it possible in a culture where greed drives the richest Americans to find new ways to avoid paying taxes that fund what we share in common as a society? Is it possible in a country where politicians of both parties, following neoliberal economic policies, ignore the needs of the middle class, working class, and the poor.
John Babush’s ideas have the strength of simplicity: Work hard and you will succeed. Push that balloon just a little bit, and it bursts. At first, I didn’t know why the Sun-Times published this letters, but the more I think about it, I’m glad it did. This letter gives us a chance to think about so many hard working people – now two generations since Ronald Reagan was president – have worked so hard and “done whatever it takes” to go nowhere or just tread water. We need to take a hard look at the American Dream. Is there still “equal opportunity”?
Every month we hear about gains in the private sector job market. O.K. There are more. The real question is: Are they good? Laura Clawson of Daily Kos examines this problem, and what she finds is not pretty. The number of jobs paying more than $15 an hour is shrinking while the number paying less is growing. There are seven people competing for every job paying more than $15 an hour. Our job problem is real a wage problem. This story does not address the equally important problem of those who are employed getting minimal raises or no raise at all. Unless something changes, that’s a number that will have very big and ugly consequences.
Today in over 100 cities workers at fast food restaurants walked off the job. It’s easy to call this a strike. We see people with signs walking a picket. We are used to seeing those images and don’t think enough about what it means when the people striking are not protected by a union. In most states, employers can fire employees for such action. These strikes show how desperate workers are getting in the U.S. Who can live on $8-$9 an hour, especially when they are scheduled to work less than 40 hours per week? The workers marching outside of fast food restaurants today are brave Americans, and they are giving us all a lesson in what it means to be a citizen.