Behind the strikes at Wal-Mart, McDonald’s, ports, 5 December 2012
On 13 March 2013, the Roman Catholic College of Cardinals elected a new head of the Church. Pope Francis I is the first South American pope. His choice of name is noteworthy. Saint Francis of Assisi, founder of the Franciscan Order, had embraced a life of poverty and championed the poor. Pope Francis expressed his desire for a poor church that serves the poor. As Archbishop of Buenos Aires, Argentina, he shunned the luxuries granted him for a more simple life.
Does this mean that the new pope will address the plight of low-wage workers and inequality worldwide?
On 12 February 2013, in his State of the Union address, President Obama called for an increase in the federal hourly minimum wage from $7.25, in effect since July 2009, to $9.00. Democrats in the House of Representatives called for an increase to $10.10. Mind you, not all low-wage workers in the private sector receive the current minimum wage for their labor.
On 15 March 2013, while eyes were focused on Rome and the new pope, all Republicans in the House rejected the minimum wage increase.
The Republican who led the opposition said: “We need jobs out there. The best approach right now is to get federal spending under control and government out of the way of the nation’s job creators.” (UPI business news)
His remarks remind me of the chicken-and-the-egg conundrum. Which comes first? When workers earn more, they spend more. Businesses grow with more sales and – under normal circumstances – hire more workers to attend to the demand. But these are not normal times. While profits soar for large corporations, low-wage workers remain mired in poverty. To better grasp the degree of inequality in the United States, I recommend that you watch the video (duration 6:12 minutes), “Wealth Inequality in America.”
As a former low-wage worker in the retail industry, I know how difficult it is to get a steady forty-hour work-week. Hours vary from week to week: sometimes as little as twenty hours or less. To make ends meet, several of my associates also held one to two other part-time jobs. I marveled at a supervisor who came in early for the morning shift; worked in the afternoon at a supermarket; and then later became a bartender at a night club.
With the steady decline of labor unions, who will defend millions of low-wage workers in the retail, food, and service industries when our government is unwilling to lead the way by establishing a livable minimum wage?
One-day flash strikes at fast-food businesses in New York City and at Wal-Mart stores around the country indicate that low-wage workers can no longer bear the burden of providing us with meals, goods, and services at low prices, everyday. With the support of local community-based organizations, they are finding new ways to demand attention for their plight.
Can we, as consumers, go on supporting businesses that amass wealth while their workers survive on government food stamps and other community assistance?