Why ALL workers should support the living-wage movement

I’ve seen a couple memes passed around on social media, in response to the $15-per-hour living wage movement, ridiculing the very idea of someone who works a fast-food job earning a living wage. They vary a bit, but the logic usually goes something like this:

“I’m a [paramedic/combat soldier] and I’m only paid [$23,000 annually, or $12 hourly, or some such figure]. I put my life on the line every day, and I do important lifesaving work.”

The writer usually tells a story about how s/he went to some fast-food chain and the staff gave him/her the wrong soda, or forgot the ketchup, or the like. The writer goes on to point out that in his/her line of work, mistakes can’t be made, there are no do-overs, etc because people’s lives are on the line. There is usually some statement such as

“and they can’t even remember the ketchup on my burger, and they want $15 per hour!!!”

The so-called logic continues on to say that because of the forgotten ketchup, none of the millions of people who are willing to take jobs at fast-food restaurants deserve to make a living wage.

First, I want to make it clear that I have the utmost respect for those who serve in the military — especially those in combat zones — as well as medical workers such as EMTs, doctors and nurses. It’s 100% true that they do important, lifesaving work and that in each hour at work, there is more on the line for them than for someone who works a fast-food counter. I also do not believe that most of our medical workers or men and women in the service want everyone else to live in poverty. These are usually the two occupations that show up as an example in these memes, which is why I’m using them.

Here’s the first problem with that logic: medical workers and those in the military are not the only people with bills to pay. Someone who takes a job at McDonald’s or Burger King— as horribly as they’re often treated — is doing what they can to pay their bills. When people who work these jobs are paid next to nothing because they don’t save lives, they can’t contribute to the economy by paying rent, paying for a vehicle (and maintenance on said vehicle), and purchasing basics like gas, groceries, and healthcare. A strong economy depends on consumers’ ability to contribute to it; when most consumers can’t even buy the basics, the economic system begins to collapse.

Here’s the second logistical flaw: the writers of these memes fail to address those who are paid obscene amounts of money who also don’t do critically important work for a living, such as fast-food CEOs.

Let’s take McDonald’s as an example, since its workers have been a large part of the $15-per-hour demonstrations. The company sells hamburgers; it certainly doesn’t save or enhance the lives of its patrons or society. CEOs aren’t working-class people who take whatever work is available to support themselves. McDonalds CEO, Steve Easterbrook, receives a compensation package of $15.4 million per year, according to a CBS News/Reuters article published April 13, 2017.

That’s quite a bit more than the average combat soldier or paramedic. I’ll ask the question again: Who does the more important work?


$15.4 million, for selling burgers, salads and fish sandwiches. One could argue that he runs the company and deserves to be compensated extra for that. But given the number of stores in the United States as well as worldwide, one person can’t run the entire company by himself. He depends on those who actually work at the chain locations to show up and do their jobs; McDonald’s couldn’t continue if there were no staff to run the stores. And Mr. Easterbrook wouldn’t get his paycheck or stock options.

Also, what about when highly-paid CEOs don’t do the jobs that they are well-paid to do?

Remember disgraced Wells Fargo CEO John Stumpf? He took home $19 million per year (he admitted that during the widely televised hearing) for overlooking a scheme in which his company opened false accounts and ruined the credit of thousands of Americans. After the scandal came to light, he had ONE job: To recommend a course of action to the board of directors to fix the problem and make amends to those who had been harmed.

Mr. Stumpf refused to do the job he was paid $19 million annually to do.

He claimed he was going to follow the advice of the board of directors. Translation: He was going to collect $19 million to let other people do his job for him.

Yet imagine the uproar, the complaints, if someone who was paid $7.25 per hour, no benefits, refused to do his or her job of serving even the rudest of customers at a fast-food counter.

Here’s the other part that the meme’s author forgot: If s/he is in line at a fast food counter (or drive thru) s/he must want someone to prepare food for them. If that job is so unimportant, why didn’t the author simply go home and prepare his or her own hamburger?

Even the most basic, unskilled jobs still have a place in our economy, whether it’s stocking shelves at a grocery store or preparing sandwiches at a food establishment. Most of us (myself included) don’t run our own farms, raise our own beef and poultry, or mill wheat to make bread or pasta. Most of us (again, myself included) aren’t able to manufacture our own toilet paper, tampons and hand soap. Imagine if there were no one to do all the work involved in making and shipping these products? Imagine if no one unloaded these items from trucks and stocked them on grocery store shelves? Still think unskilled jobs aren’t important?

Here’s the fourth possibility that the authors of these memes don’t consider: A higher minimum wage would mean higher pay for everyone — including those who are putting their lives on the line every day. Of course paramedics and combat soldiers deserve better pay, and that’s exactly what they’d get with a minimum-wage increase.

I’ll leave you with this: Conservatives complain to no end about the existence of welfare and food stamps, but they forget that people who go to work every day even in unskilled labor occupations are doing so to earn a living. A mom or dad who is operating the cash register at a fast food restaurant probably doesn’t claim that he or she is saving lives. They’re doing honest work to contribute to the economy and, most importantly, feed and clothe their children.

And any person who believes children should go hungry just because their parents don’t have highly-skilled jobs…perhaps should examine his or her values.

Let’s stop pretending that the wage associated with a job correlates with how important it is. If that were the case, schoolteachers — who educate and care for children all day — or the workers who make it possible for you to walk into a store and buy food and toilet paper — would be paid more than someone who plays baseball or football for a living. But that isn’t the way it is.

Minimum wage workers are doing a job to try to earn a living, and if they weren’t needed, companies wouldn’t hire them in the first place. Let’s have some respect for an honest, productive citizen and not degrade them for providing services that most of us couldn’t live without.

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