Monday, July 28, 2014
Inquirer Daily News

The people have finally risen up...

Is the plight of the low-wage worker in America reaching a tipping point?

The people have finally risen up...

A demonstrator holds a torn portrait of Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych and shouts "Coward!" during a rally in support of Ukraine´s integration with the European Union in the center of Kiev, Ukraine, Friday, Nov. 29, 2013. Yanukovych said last week that he wouldn´t sign the pact at an EU summit on Friday in Vilnius, Lithuania. The European Union extended its geopolitical reach eastward on Friday by sealing association agreements with Georgia and Moldova, but blamed Russia for missing out on a landmark deal with Ukraine. (AP Photo/Sergei Grits)
A demonstrator holds a torn portrait of Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych and shouts "Coward!" during a rally in support of Ukraine's integration with the European Union in the center of Kiev, Ukraine, Friday, Nov. 29, 2013. Yanukovych said last week that he wouldn't sign the pact at an EU summit on Friday in Vilnius, Lithuania. The European Union extended its geopolitical reach eastward on Friday by sealing association agreements with Georgia and Moldova, but blamed Russia for missing out on a landmark deal with Ukraine. (AP Photo/Sergei Grits)

...in the Ukraine:

KIEV, Ukraine — More than 100,000 people took to the streets of Kiev on Sunday, and thousands more rallied in other cities across Ukraine, to demand the resignation of President Viktor F. Yanukovich, the largest outpouring of fury so far over his refusal to sign far-reaching political and trade accords with the European Union.

Could you imagine that happening here in the United States? Me neither. For one thing, people would have to actually follow the news about trade accords. (True story -- when I covered Rep. Bob Brady's first run for Congress in 1998 and ambushed him with some policy questions, he was not familiar with NAFTA. And he was "the union candidate"! But I digress...),

Still, reading the news over this Thanksgiving weekend, I had to wonder if the American people have reached a breaking point. Something remarkable -- and not in a good way -- has happened slowly to the U.S. economy over the past generation. For years, we've been talking about the fast-growing "service sector" of the economy, but two truths were left unspoken: 1) the new jobs here tend to be only those that can't be outsourced to places like China or Bangladesh and 2) service worker jobs tend to be at places like fast-food restaurants and big-box retailers, non-unionized and paying at or little more than the minimum wage, not enough to support a family in most cities. Yet increasingly it's adults -- even parents -- forced to take these jobs.

The New York Times -- with the help of some recent prodding from its Pulitzer-worthy ombudswoman Margaret Sullivan -- has stepped up its coverage of the low-wage worker and produced some remarkable pieces, such as this look at what it's like to live (partially) on the $7.25 minimim wage in New York City. The article focused on the plight of Educardo Shoy, who at age 58 has lost his decently paying union job as a forklift driver for Pathmark and now works two full-time jobs as a Pizza Hut/KFC delivery man and as a nonunion overnight forklift driver for considerably less money:

If Mr. Shoy were differently employed, he might have remained that way till morning. But as a fast-food worker paid the minimum wage — $7.25 an hour in New York — he didn’t have the luxury. At 10 p.m., he was up again and back in his car, this time driving to his second job, as a forklift operator at Kennedy International Airport, where he makes $13 an hour. Having worked all day, he was about to work all night: from 11 p.m. until 7:30 a.m. At 3 that afternoon, he would return to his deliveries at the restaurant. Then, at 11, he would once again drive to the airport.Altogether, on the weekend before Thanksgiving,

Mr. Shoy would sleep for 13 hours and work for 44. “Tired?” he asked, sounding puzzled by the question. “I’m too busy to be tired.”

THERE ARE 55,000 fast-food workers in New York — more than the entire population of Harrisburg, Pa. — and most, like Mr. Shoy, are struggling to stitch together a living in an industry where the median wage is $8.90 an hour. Last year, fast-food workers in Manhattan earned average pay of $19,000 — or about the cost of Mr. Shoy’s Honda. In Brooklyn, it was $15,500; on Staten Island, less.

Since 2000, the number of fast-food jobs in New York City has increased by more than 50 percent — 10 times as fast as in any other type of private job. But the conspicuous increase has not received the attention given, say, to the city’s high-tech industry, nor has it lessened the financial insecurities of this growing work force.

The article notes that Shoy -- excuse me, Mr. Shoy -- was finally driven to take part in his first protest for higher wages, part of a growing chorus of job actions across the country which have been inspired in part by the Occupy movement that bloomed in 2011. This week, they were joined by  thousands of low-wage protesters at Wal-mart stores, including a surprising number who were arrested for taking a stand. But some politicians and voters are also listening. The city that hosts the Seattle-Tacoma airport just voted to raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour, and new elected officials in cities from New York to Seattle seem more committed to the plight of the low wage worker than any moment in recent memory.

Something has got to give. For several decades, American wages have stayed flat while income for CEOs and the top 1 Percent have soared -- and a civil society has already suffered as a result.

We can fix this the American way, or fix it the Ukrainian way. But it's got to get fixed.

About this blog
Will Bunch, a senior writer at the Philadelphia Daily News, blogs about his obsessions, including national and local politics and world affairs, the media, pop music, the Philadelphia Phillies, soccer and other sports, not necessarily in that order.

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