Super-sizing wages: Labor protests across country are food for thought

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Protesters outside a McDonald's restaurant in Milwaukee last week summed up, in a few words, what might turn out to be some of the most significant job actions in the past 40 years: "Hold the burgers, hold the fries/Make my wages supersize."

Milwaukee and Detroit are two of five cities over the past six weeks in which a series of one-day mini-strikes rocked the fast-food industry. Workers demanded wages of $15 an hour and the freedom to join unions without intimidation.

These actions, part of an organized nationwide campaign, are not outbursts of radicalism. Rather, they reflect decadeslong changes in the U.S. economy that have eroded the standard of living of millions of American workers.

It's an all-too-familiar story: The U.S. economy, inexorably altered by outsourcing and technological changes, has shed millions of high-paying manufacturing jobs over the past four decades. Service jobs, mainly in the retail and fast-food sectors, have replaced them, often paying little more than the federal minimum wage, now $7.25 an hour. Most growth occupations today are low-wage.

These macroeconomic changes have hastened the decline of unions, which now represent less than 7 percent of the private-sector workforce. It's no accident that the sites of the first five fast-food strikes included older industrial cities such as Detroit, Milwaukee, Chicago and St. Louis. They mark the epicenter of a collapsed manufacturing-based economy that once sustained a broad and prosperous middle class.

A shrinking middle class undermines the U.S. economy. Enough people no longer earn enough money to buy enough stuff to keep the economic engine roaring. So waves of fast-food strikes -- hitting McDonald's, Burger King, Taco Bell, Wendy's, Subway, Little Caesars, Popeyes and similar franchises -- were probably inevitable.

In each city, a coalition of local activists and unions, including the Service Employees International Union, supported the workers. One-day work stoppages, designed to mobilize broad support, have maximized attention while minimizing the risks of firings.

No one knows whether the mini-strikes will compel fast-food giants to sit down and negotiate with their workers for better pay and union rights. Such changes would, of course, raise the price of a Big Mac and fries. But that might be a small enough price to pay for bringing hundreds of thousands of workers back into the economic mainstream.

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