Unequal America

08.29.13

Feminism's Sticky Fast-Food Floor

With fast-food workers preparing for a day of walk-outs and strikes, Sally Kohn takes a look at how women make up a disproportionate number of those stuck in and screwed over by the industry's low-wage jobs.

This week, in New York City, the paradoxical economic conditions of working women collided in spectacular form. On the one hand, the Wall Street financial world mourned the death of Muriel Siebert, the first woman to own a seat on the New York Stock Exchange and, eventually, the first American woman to have a net worth of $1 billion that she earned, rather than inherited. But on the other hand, as Siebert was toasted by the town’s economic elites, Nathalia Sepulveda went to work in the Bronx, where she earns just $7.25 an hour at McDonald’s.

If Siebert illustrates how a few women have managed to crack the glass ceiling and achieve great wealth and power and even the appearance of parity, whether in business or in politics or elsewhere, Nathalia Sepulveda illustrates the sticky floor that confronts the vast majority of working women in America, especially women of color, who struggle to make basic ends meet.

People of color make up 32 percent of the total American workforce but a disproportionate 42 percent of minimum-wage earners. And in the restaurant and fast-food industries, the majority of those workers are women of color—who, studies show, are paid 60 percent less than their male counterparts. Over 13 percent of food-industry workers rely on food stamps to feed their own families, almost double the rate of workers in other industries. Like Sepulveda, millions of food workers are struggling to raise a family while making just $7.25 an hour, or sometimes less. And Sepulveda, mind you, is trying to scrape by in the most expensive city in America.

Meanwhile, the multinational corporation for which Sepulveda works, McDonald’s, made $8.5 billion in profits in 2012. The last CEO of McDonald’s, Jim Skinner, took home $8.75 million in pay the previous year.

In other words, the CEO of McDonald’s makes 580 times more than Nathalia Sepulveda.

Sepulveda struggles to get assigned as many shifts per week as possible, but even if she had the chance to work 40 hours per week (a rarity), that would at most equal $15,080 per year. In other words, the CEO of McDonald’s makes 580 times more than Nathalia Sepulveda. But no one can seriously think he works 580 times harder than Sepulveda or any of the other workers who serve customers, flip burgers, and clean restrooms at McDonald’s across the country and the world. In fact, it’s hard to imagine Skinner working 100 times harder than Sepulveda. Or even 10 times harder.

But such is the landscape of low-wage jobs in America today, which proliferate not because our economy is universally dire but because it is unequal. Research by Northeastern University has shown that 88 percent of the economic-recovery gains following the 2008 crash went to corporate profits. Just 1 percent went to wages. While small businesses across our great nation are working to rebuild profits at the same time as they hire more workers for good pay and benefits and therefore rebuild local economies with more spending and security, big corporations have figured out that they can rebound their profits while keeping worker wages and benefits perpetually suppressed. This is the new new, and it’s as ugly as a slimy pile of industrial mystery meat.

Today, fast-food workers and their allies across the United States are calling for a historic day of protests and strikes across the country. Fast-food workers are expected to strike in at least 35 cities, and the group behind the protests has published a manual to help even more workers self-organize demonstrations and walk-outs. A powerful video (below) illustrates their plight and their vision.

Video screenshot

Sepulveda will be striking, along with many other women standing up for the 3.5 million fast-food workers in America who feed us every day but can’t afford to feed their own families. In our modern economy, everyone has to work to keep up—whether it’s two parents or single parents or everyone else. Yet a labor market that increasingly includes women at the same time that wages are being deliberately driven into the ground creates a disastrous economic and moral trap for millions of women charged with shoring up our economy, our families, and our communities.

It’s great that so many female pioneers, like Muriel Siebert, have helped crack the glass ceiling. But we should be far more concerned about the persistent, and spreading, sticky floor.