There's a famous comedy sketch from the second episode of "Chappelle's Show" that's probably still causing fast food restaurants fits nearly a decade later. In it, Dave Chappelle plays Calvin, a black man who is inordinately proud to have scored a job at the local WacArnold's, a neighborhood fast food chain with more than a passing resemblance to McDonald's.
"WacArnold's is proud to give young African-Americans an opportunity to serve their communities, making them feel responsible for the welfare of their own environment," an earnest voice intones over shots of Calvin striding proudly through his neighborhood while receiving congratulations from people who, presumably, aren't working.
"Look, Calvin's got a job," one neighbor sitting on a stoop squeals with delight. The community's giddy reaction is over the top, just like the gauzy self-congratulatory commercials the sketch was satirizing.
The sketch doesn't offer a specific critique of the low wages or the dubious nutritional value of WacArnold's meals per se. It points out the absurdity of busting one's hump in a hot kitchen as if it was its own reward.
When Calvin stops to chat up two young women standing on the corner, one of them says exactly what she thinks of his newfound working class brio: "Ewww, [racial epithet]," she sneers, "you smell like french fries."
Later in the sketch, we learn that months of working at WacArnold's eventually takes a toll on Calvin's happy disposition. He's paid so little that he has to bring food home from work to feed his spouse and baby. Tensions mount as the mother of his child, who has been unfaithful to him because of his long hours at work shouts: "Get a real job [expletive]."
On Monday, many real-life Calvins working at fast food restaurants in seven American cities began an unprecedented four-day work stoppage. Workers walked off their jobs and formed picket lines around fast food establishments that included McDonald's, Wendy's, KFC, Burger King and Domino's Pizza.
Their demands are simple, although many will consider them outrageous -- these workers want a living wage of at least $12.50 an hour. They want to work under humane conditions. They want to be treated with dignity and not like interchangeable widgets whose hours can be set at the whim of indifferent managers. They don't want to have to work a second job to feed their families.
Despite its long history of union activism, Pittsburgh is not one of the cities where these walkouts are happening. Because of the slowdown at selected restaurants, it will take longer than usual to "have it your way" in places as disparate as New York City, Milwaukee, Detroit, St. Louis, Kansas City, Chicago and Flint, Mich.
There was a similar walkout in Seattle a few months ago and one in NYC late last year that involved 200 employees of various chains. Fast food strikes are becoming more frequent now that the media is beginning to pay attention to them.
Lots of formerly middle-class strivers who lost high-paying jobs are flipping burgers now and blowing the whistle on the blatant inequities and terrible work conditions of the food service industry. Paula Deen isn't the only rotten boss out there, apparently.
There will be those who pooh-pooh the concerns of these workers by stating that food service industry jobs weren't ever meant to be "good jobs" and that they were designed for teenagers and young adults who needed pocket change, not folks with families and responsibilities.
The moral idiocy of this position should be self-evident to anyone who has a heart and a brain. If these folks don't take jobs they could get in the food service industry, they would either have to go on welfare or give up eating at all. Unless we're stone-cold social Darwinists, this isn't an option for our society.
Here's a novel idea -- why don't we pay people enough to live so that they don't have to work two or three jobs just to scrape by?
Fast food may be indisputably bad for our health, but it generates $200 billion in sales annually for this industry while paying its workers an average of $11,000 a year or less. This is unconscionable -- and more people are starting to wake up to this fact.
McDonald's recently published a "Practical Money Skills Budget Journal" for its employees that was wildly out of touch with reality -- it suggested that they need second jobs if they wanted to pay for such extras as utilities, car payments, clothes, health care, education and rent. There doesn't seem to be much wiggle room for real life when it comes to working at WacArnold's.
Tony Norman: firstname.lastname@example.org, 412-263-1631 or on Twitter @TonyNormanPG.