Diane Stafford: Fast-food workers' pitch for higher pay turning into civil rights issue

A year ago, Terrance Wise first stepped forward to become a protest leader among Kansas City fast-food workers. This year, he addressed the national NAACP convention with his message: Raising the minimum wage is a matter of civil rights, not just economics. (Dave Ralis / Philly.com)

A year ago, Terrance Wise first stepped forward to become a protest leader among Kansas City fast-food workers. This year, he addressed the national NAACP convention with his message:

Raising the minimum wage is a matter of civil rights, not just economics.

At the NAACP convention last week in Las Vegas, Wise asked delegates to support fast-food workers in their quest for higher pay. In a unanimous resolution, amid calls for "economic justice," the organization backed raising the federal minimum wage. Since 2009, it's been $7.25 an hour.

For a growing chorus of voices, higher pay has become a civil rights issue. They argue that workers, especially on full-time hours, should be paid a "living wage" – enough to cover basic housing, food, fuel and clothing expenses – and minimum wage's $15,000 a year doesn't cut it.

It's clear the debate about low pay has no summer slump.

In fact, the civil rights calls are gaining traction and moving the wage quest beyond initial campaigns for collective bargaining rights for low-wage workers.

Unions, especially the Service Employees International Union and other AFL-CIO organizations, have over the past year provided financial and legal support and fueled the fast-food worker movement, seeking to organize those employees. The union-backed efforts champion "$15 an hour and a union."

Some low-wage workers think that's overreaching and that it divides public sentiment. The NAACP measure focused on the more moderate "economic justice for all" rationale. It supports "a living wage for all working people" and endorses the federal Fair Minimum Wage Act of 2013 and President Barack Obama's executive order requiring federal contractors to pay workers at least $10.10 an hour.

The act, introduced last year in the U.S. Senate, would raise the federal minimum wage in increments over three years to $8.20, then $9.15, then $10.10. The bill's passage is uncertain.

The Missouri Restaurant Association, among several trade groups, opposes $10.10 an hour. And it says the restaurant industry is "inappropriately attacked" in that its jobs provide "a ladder of opportunity to reach the middle class" for entry-level workers and that median pay for restaurant employees already is $9.10 an hour, not the minimum wage.

But for many in the low-wage movement, $10.10 is a reasonable aim. They note that corporate profits and executive salaries have risen as the nation clawed its way out of a recession.

"For decades, American wages have stagnated, even as worker productivity has increased," Michell McIntyre, the National Consumers League's outreach director for labor and worker rights, said in the league's summer bulletin. "It's time to give Americans a raise."

Wise said that at the NAACP convention, he had been "sitting listening to a lot of resolutions being presented. There didn't seem to be a lot of excitement in the room. But when we got to ours, several people stood up and said they wanted to be a part of it, and I got a nice ovation ... something I hadn't heard with previous resolutions."

Wise, a Burger King worker, on Friday joined other employees, labor union leaders, civil rights activists and faith and community leaders on a bus bound for a convention held this past weekend in Chicago. It was the first nationwide fast-food worker convention, with an agenda that included training and strategy sessions on how to escalate wage campaigns.

Terrell Bullock, a Wendy's employee, said he signed up for the Chicago convention because "I'm ready to do whatever it takes to win because my children deserve a better future."

Dana Wittman, a Pizza Hut worker, added, "I am much more afraid of things staying the same as they are now, where we cannot afford even the basics ..."

Fast-food chains generally have responded to wage protests by saying that they're proud to provide entry-level job opportunities and that they respect workers' rights to protest. Some chains also note that pay is set by franchisees, not the large corporations.

Although surveys generally find that 8 in 10 Americans back a minimum-wage increase, a sizable contingent believes wage hikes aren't necessary. That includes some think tanks, business owners, trade associations and ordinary citizens who think low-wage workers are paid what they're worth, as a free market system dictates.

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that the usual weekly earnings of full-time wage and salary workers are a median of $780. But that figure drops steeply – to $500 a week – for service-sector workers, which include food servers.

Earnings fall further for many fast-food employees who don't get full-time hours. The average work week for restaurant staff was 25 to 26 hours a week last year. About 1 in 5 U.S. jobs are part-time.

Some business-oriented and conservative groups say the workers pursue their wage quests at their peril. The Employment Policies Institute has issued this warning about a $15-an-hour wage:

"Restaurants keep just a few cents in profit from each sales dollar and won't be able to afford current staffing levels when faced with a $15 minimum wage. Instead, they will be forced to replace employees with less costly automated alternatives like touch-screen ordering and payment devices."

An economic analysis shared by the Missouri Restaurant Association suggests that 15,000 jobs would be eliminated if the state minimum was $10.10. (Because of an inflation adjustment law, the state's minimum now is $7.50 an hour, 25 cents higher than the federal rate.)

On the opposite side, the Business for Shared Prosperity organization supports a higher wage floor. It says consumer demand drives job creation.

The Rev. Donna Simon, pastor of St. Mark Hope and Peace Lutheran Church in Kansas City, said, "It's a benefit for companies, for communities, when workers can afford to buy the products they sell."

Seattle recently approved a $15 minimum wage by 2018; the Washington state minimum now is $9.32. San Francisco voters are expected to approve $15, too, moving its minimum up from $10.74. Massachusetts has passed an $11 minimum. Earlier this year, Minnesota set a $9.50 minimum by 2016. California, Connecticut and Maryland also will increase their respective wages to $10 or more in coming years.

And many companies, such as Ikea, Costco, Whole Foods and Gap, have raised or plan to increase their entry-level pay.

Last week in Washington, a group of senators introduced a minimum wage clock, created by the Center for Economic and Policy Research, that charts the eroded purchasing power of the minimum wage over the past five years.

The Democratic group said, "The cost of child care has risen more than 14 percent, mass transit fares have increased by more than 21 percent, rent has gone up nearly 10 percent and groceries are now more than 9 percent more expensive."

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ABOUT THE WRITER

To reach Diane Stafford, call 816-234-4359 or send email to stafford@kcstar.com. Follow her online at kansascity.com/workplace and twitter.com/kcstarstafford.

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