Fast-food workers demand pay increase: Are unions the answer?

Fast-food workers demand pay increase: Are unions the answer?
Frank Witsil, Detroit Free Press


Jamika Ruffin is a part-time Burger King cashier trying to make ends meet on about $9.25 an hour.

“The money they pay me is not worth what you have to put up with when it comes down to these customers,” said the single, 25-year-old Highland Park mother of two, adding that after taxes and child care expenses there’s not much left. “It needs to go up more.”

On Monday, she and about 150 other lower-wage workers will have a chance to make their case for better wages to four key Democratic representatives to Congress — Sander Levin, Royal Oak; Dan Kildee, Flint; Debbie Dingell, Dearborn, and Brenda Lawrence, Southfield — at an open, town hall-style meeting at 11 a.m. at Wayne County Community College in Detroit.

Ruffin said she could be collecting public assistance instead of working.

“But,” she added, “I prefer to get up and work and show my kids there’s something else out there.”

Monday’s gathering — which organizers are calling Michigan Needs Unions — is part of a national effort to organize and to enlist public officials and candidates in supporting the workers’ cause, especially as November elections near.

Organizers said their concerns are resonating in metro Detroit — which has long been a bastion of organized labor — because the real median hourly wage is falling, union membership is declining and the percentage of workers in service jobs, like fast food cashiers, is on the rise.

“I’m all for a union: To be able to have everybody’s voice heard who work in fast food places,” Ruffin said. “I’m not the only one who feels this way. There’s a lot of people who put up with this only because they need the money.”

Moreover, organizers added, Michigan’s governor and Republican lawmakers have gone after unions by prohibiting dues as a condition of employment and banning Michigan municipalities from setting minimum wages.

Meanwhile, the restaurant industry has been pushing back on mandating higher wages, making the case that it has already made concessions to increase the minimum wage in the last few years, and in many cases, when the market requires it, eateries pay even more than the minimum.

In California, for instance, one quick-service restaurant is offering as much as $18 an hour.

For more than five years, groups of fast food workers and the Service Employees International Union — a 2 million-member labor union representing workers in health care, janitorial services and government jobs — have been staging rallies and protests in metro Detroit and nationally.

“Michigan needs a recovery that includes everyone, no matter what color they are or how much money they have now,” said Mary Kay Henry, president of the union. “It should be easier for people working in the fast-growing service and care sectors to join together in unions so they can gain more power to boost wages. That will strengthen communities across the state.”

For unions — which have been more prevalent in the manufacturing sector than the service sector and have faced declines in worker representation, falling from 29% in 1989 to 17% last year — the state’s $17-billion restaurant industry is an opportunity to add members and strength.

In 1990, about 75% of the private-sector jobs in metro Detroit were in service industries, while nearly 21% were in manufacturing, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Last year, the percentage of service jobs had gone up to 82%, and manufacturing fell to less than 14%.

And, while the economy nationally is booming, the real median hourly wages in metro Detroit when adjusted for inflation have fallen $2.65 an hour, from $21.52 in 2001 to $18.87 in 2017.

Dingell said she is looking forward to the meeting with fast food cashiers and cooks, health care and service workers, and other lower-wage workers who are fighting for a $15-an-hour minimum wage and benefits.

“This discussion is critical for working men and women across this country,” Dingell said. “Understanding and fighting for policies that keep good-paying jobs in this country, grow manufacturing and protect the rights of American workers is imperative to keeping America competitive.”

Levin, who has plans to leave office, said unions help reduce inequality.

“Unions pave the way to the middle class for working Americans,” he said. “They provide workers with a strong, collective voice to bargain for higher wages, improved employment security and better working conditions.”

The effort to increase minimum wages has been gaining political traction.

In 2015, then-U.S. Secretary of Labor Thomas Perez came to Detroit to hear dozens of fast food workers tell him and Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan their experiences working multiple jobs to make ends meet.

Big cities have approved increases: Chicago passed an increase that gradually raises wages to $13. Seattle and San Francisco passed laws that raise wages to $15 an hour over years. Los Angeles voted to increase the minimum wage to $15 an hour by 2020.

Earlier this month, another group, Michigan One Fair Wage, submitted a November ballot proposal with more than the required voter signatures to incrementally raise Michigan’s minimum wage from $9.25 to $12 in 2022.

For Ruffin, who never graduated high school and has two children ages 2 and 6, the choices about where she works may be limited. Before working at Burger King, she worked at Subway, and on weekends she has a side job installing audio equipment in cars.

To work, she said, she has to hire someone to watch her kids, and that cuts into her pay.

It’s also not just the pay that’s a concern. She has no sick days, no vacation days and no health benefits. Some customers, she said, get extremely upset if she is busy and forgets to put ketchup packets in the bags.

“I don’t get treated like a doctor would get treated, like I’m trying to save your life even though you need food to live,” she said. “I don’t get a thank you for making food.”

Michigan Restaurant Association President Justin Winslow has long maintained that unions are impractical for food service employees; industry growth is pushing wages up, not down; and the market — not the legislation — is a better way to determine wages.

Restaurant workers, he said, often don’t stay in the same job for long, and there is ample opportunity for career-oriented employees to move into management jobs paying upward of $50,000 a year — or to own their own franchises.

Raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour, Winslow said, will likely hurt businesses and workers, resulting in few hours for employees and job cuts, as eateries try to trim costs and turn to automation.

To back this claim, Winslow has pointed to a University of Washington study published last year that concluded Seattle’s minimum-wage law — which is boosting pay to $15 by 2021 — resulted in a reduction in hours and an overall average loss of pay of about $125 a month.

“The biggest issue of all is there is an emotional side of this equation,” Winslow said. “It’s easier to draw empathy and understanding with that situation and want to make that situation better for people. But it’s not disingenuous to say that some of these top-down efforts might make it worse.”