Sunday, April 7, 2013

Striking Out

On April 3rd, there was a fast-food workers strike in New York City, the second in two months. The strikes were organized by a group called Fast Food Forward, which is calling for fast-food restaurants to pay a "living wage" of $15 an hour. For many New York fast-food workers who currently earn the minimum wage of $7.25 an hour, this would more than double their current pay.

I was reading the NPR story on this, and two points came up, that commonly become lost in the shouting and acrimony that tends to grow up around stories like this.


"People like me, we don't have education to get a better job," says [Gregory] Renoso [,a deliveryman for Domino's Pizza]. "We have to do the fast-food industry. But the fast-food industry [doesn't] pay."
And secondly:
"Folks can't just move on to other jobs," says [Jonathan] Westin [a campaign manager for Fast Food Forward]. "If they could, they probably would have, because the conditions are so bad. The problem is, these are the jobs that are out there. There's really nowhere to go."
These two points - that people with few marketable skills have few options, and that jobs are hard to come by - are, in a lot of ways, the elephant in the room that goes unaddressed.

The very day that fast-food workers were going on strike in New York City, another NPR story came out - this one talking about the record demand for H-1B visas. So there are jobs going begging, and there are people begging for higher wages. The barrier is that the striking fast-food workers in New York don't have the skills that the companies looking for H-1B visa immigrants need. And the fast-food workers don't have the resources to obtain those skills.

And, as Mr. Westin points out, the number of jobs for people without marketable skills is small - the number of people for whom these are the only jobs that they can realistically compete is relatively large. And the large labor supply means that labor is cheap.

Striking may give the picketing workers a greater sense of agency and self-worth, but it doesn't a) increase their economic worth, or b) increase the overall number of available jobs. These two factors, taken together are a large part of the reason why our current economy is so broken and unequal. Simply jacking up wages by fiat is not going to change that. Instead of trying to limit the damage that a broken system does to vulnerable people, we would better spend our time attempting to fix the system.

What the working poor need in the long run are two things - better access to skills, and a broader choice of employment. Generally speaking, if you have one, you have a better chance of having the other. The economic boom time that we now refer to as "the Tech Bubble" supplied both of those things, as companies scrambled to take advantage of new technologies. Perhaps it's time that we shifted our efforts to where our next new technologies are going to come from.

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