Beam: $15 wage has tough road ahead

By 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


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


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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