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Beam: $15 wage has tough road ahead

Last Modified: Friday, August 30, 2013 5:35 PM

By Jim Beam / American Press

Fast food workers in this country want to unionize without interference from employers and make $15 an hour. They are taking to the streets to increase awareness of their cause. Find people who think $15 an hour is a good idea, and the odds are you will also find an equal number who will either say it is an unrealistic goal or that they don’t care one way or the other.

The current federal minimum wage is $7.25 per hour, which amounts to $15,000 a year for full-time employees. Some cities and states have higher minimum wages. Washington state has the highest state minimum wage — $9.19 an hour. There is also a push in Seattle to raise the minimum to $15 an hour, which is about $31,000 a year. San Francisco has the highest city minimum wage — $10.50 an hour.

Nationwide protests that were held Thursday were organized by unions and community groups. Some critics of the movement say it’s an effort by unions to increase their membership rolls. The Associated Press reports the Service Employees International Union, which represents more than 2 million workers nationwide, has provided money and training for those engaged in the protests.

Community organizers are also promoting the cause. Fox Business News quoted the Rev. Martin Rafanan, an organizer in St. Louis.

“This is the opportunity to have concerted action in the workplace without retaliation,” Rafanan said. “It needs to be open to these workers to talk and form a union on their own, which is their right. They have limited hours, no control over their hours, don’t get paid sick leave and in many cases, face disrespect in the workplace.”

Supporters of the $15 wage are going to find stiff opposition. President Obama found that out quickly after he proposed during his February State of the Union address to raise the federal minimum wage to $9 an hour in 2015. He also wants to increase the $2.13 an hour paid to waiters and waitresses who rely on tips to supplement their wages, but didn’t suggest an amount.

Even the president’s fairly realistic $9 an hour ran into a wall of protests. Spokesmen for the National Restaurant Association said the typical restaurant operates on an average pre-tax profit of 3 to 4 percent. They say any additional labor costs will negatively impact their ability to hire and to keep all current employees. Obamacare already has employers talking about reducing hours and employee numbers.

Spokesmen for McDonald’s and Burger King said their companies don’t make pay decisions for independent franchisees that operate most of the restaurants in this country. Others argue that minimum wage jobs aren’t meant to be full-time careers. They say it is something people do for a short time before moving on to better-paying jobs.

The Economic Policy Institute disagrees. EPI said the average age of low-wage workers today is 35 and more than a third are 40 or older. The organization describes itself as a non-profit, non-partisan think tank created in 1986 to broaden discussions about economic policy to include the needs of low- and middle-income workers.

The Employment Policies Institute, a Washington, D.C., think tank, talks about another downside to the higher wage. It said $15 an hour will lead to more automation in the fast food industry, cost-cutting measures and fewer entry-level jobs.

Nick Hanauer, a venture capitalist in Seattle, supports the higher wage. He is often quoted for his belief that $15 an hour would produce positive results. He said the higher wage would make low-income families less dependent on government programs. He said the Congressional Budget Office reports those making the minimum wage received $316 billion in 2012 from government programs like food stamps, Medicaid and housing assistance.

“Raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour would inject about $450 billion into the economy each year,” Hanauer said. “That would give more purchasing power to millions of poor and middle-income Americans, and would stimulate buying, production and hiring.”

The Times-Picayune traced the history of the minimum wage movement after Obama’s message. President Franklin D. Roosevelt implemented the first minimum wage in 1936, which was 25 cents an hour. The newspaper said the wage went up fairly regularly to adjust for inflation, but slowed down over the last three decades. The $7.25 minimum was established in 2007. Using the rate in 1968 as a base, the minimum would be equal to $10 with today’s cost of living, the Picayune said.

The 2010 Census figures show that over 165,000 workers in Louisiana earn less than $10,000 a year, over 118,000 earn between $10,000 and $14,999 and over 213,000 make between $15,000 and $24,999. The total is just under a half-million workers making below $25,000 a year, which is 25 percent of the state’s nearly 2 million workforce.

Workers seeking a $15 per hour wage may find public apathy to be their biggest hurdle. One fast food customer in New York told The AP he supports their cause and realizes they work harder “than billionaires in this city.” However, he said he doesn’t plan to stop his regular trips to McDonald’s. Businesses at other protest sites around the country said some of their customers weren’t even aware of the movement and it was business as usual when the protesters left.

Many fast food customers don’t want anyone upsetting their daily routine that allows them to get a quick meal at a reasonable price.

    • • •

Jim Beam, the retired editor of the American Press, has covered people and politics for more than five decades. Contact him at 494-4025 or jbeam@americanpress.com

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