In recent weeks fast-food workers have staged dramatic one-day strikes in cities across the country, demanding a $15 starting wage, instead of about $8 on average at places like McDonald’s. The strikes have prompted much debate about fast food and the cost of a Big Mac. But this moment isn’t just about burger-flippers—it’s about the realization that the American middle class has been hollowed out to the point of decimation. Today, one in four jobs is low-wage, and at current pace it will be one in two jobs by 2024—which means that what fast-food companies pay people today will affect us all.
Companies like McDonald’s may protest that their margins are too thin, their workforces too transient to justify a $15 minimum wage. Yet in other countries the company pays exactly that wage and manages to make profits while charging only a few cents more for burgers. In this sense, fast-food workers are like water drops on a hot griddle: once they’re vaporized, everyone else is about to get cooked. And as these strikers are now showing, more and more low-wage workers in America, even ones that aren’t unionized, are tired of being vaporized.
A $15 minimum wage is the key element of “middle-out economics” (a concept I’ve helped shape, along with my co-author Nick Hanauer). Middle-out economics, as opposed to trickle-down, says that the best job creator is a healthy middle class with the purchasing power to generate and sustain demand. It says – as Henry Ford figured out a long time ago – that workers aren’t costs to be cut; they are customers to be cultivated. Investing in that middle class makes more sense than expanding tax breaks for the wealthy.
A middle-out policy agenda includes a more progressive tax system, but also focuses on high-skill education and fostering more entrepreneurs. And it crosses left-right lines: after all, the rock-bottom wages of a “free enterprise” like Wal-Mart leads to more “big government” spending on food stamps and Medicaid. A $15 minimum wage would take tens of millions off the dole and turn them into more robust consumers and less dependent citizens.
The fast-food strikes have framed the issue and are a sign of a reorganization of labor itself. Because traditional unions now cover only a tiny slice of the private workforce, new forms of organized, joint action are emerging to pressure employers for a better deal, such as coalitions of domestic workers in various states, or advocacy centers for oft-abused guest workers.
Too many American think that the plight of the low-wage worker has nothing to do with them. In fact it is both a preview and a parable. The fate of the middle class rests, in part, on whether more Americans learn to see the fate of fry cooks as their own.