By Dottie Lamm, former Colorado first lady and political activist
January 25, 2014
Originally posted in the Denver Post
The temperature had dropped well below zero at 5:45 a.m. on Dec. 5. But that did not deter the group of 75 bundled-up fast-food workers and their supporters who demonstrated in front of the McDonald’s on West Colfax Avenue in Denver for higher wages and the right to unionize.
Denver was only one of more than 100 cities nationwide where multitudes of such restaurant employees came out to demonstrate, no matter the weather. No wonder.
According to the fall Ms. Magazine cover story, such workers — more than 60 percent of whom are between the ages of 25 and 64 — earn between $7.25 and $9 an hour. And often their jobs are only part-time, necessitating that they take another fast-food job on the side.
The wage gap between top management and low-level employees in the fast-food industry is one of the most egregious in the nation. The National Employment Law Project found that in 2012, the CEO of McDonald’s raked in about $13.8 million. That is an estimated 737 times the yearly income of his average worker.
Naturally, the National Restaurant Association, which represents the large chains like McDonald’s, Wendy’s, and Burger King, is fighting the wage increase. The association maintains that a livable wage would force their companies to raise prices, lose customers, fire employees and contribute to unemployment.
Many economists disagree. Arindrajit Dube, a University of Massachusetts professor who has researched minimum wage issues for more than two decades, wrote recently in The New York Times, “While higher minimum wages raise earnings of low-wage workers, they do not have a detectable impact on employment.”
Ron Shaich, boss of Panera, a chain of 1,800 eateries, stands out as an exception to the industry’s line. According to The Economist, Shaich “backs an increase in the minimum wage so long as it applies to everyone.”
So do the majority of small businesses. A poll last April by the Small Business Majority revealed that more than two-thirds of small-business owners support raising the minimum wage. They are joined by Silicon Valley millionaire Ron Unz, former publisher of The American Conservative magazine.
In fact, according to a November Gallup poll, a full 58 percent of Republicans approve of raising the minimum wage to $9 an hour, as do 78 percent of all Americans.
A constitutional amendment passed by Colorado voters in 2006 raised the state’s minimum wage from $5.15 to $6.85 that year, and mandated that it be adjusted for inflation annually in the future. Therefore, on Jan. 1, our minimum wage went from $7.78 to $8 an hour.
Linda Meric, national executive director of 9to5, which helped spearhead the 2006 constitutional amendment, says that this small raise “puts a little more money in the pockets of Colorado’s lowest-wage workers to spend on essentials that will help their families and our local economy. But it is still not enough.”
This year, 9to5, along with a plethora of other advocacy groups, will be lobbying for the federal Fair Minimum Wage Act of 2013, supported by President Obama and introduced in both houses of Congress last year. Passage of this act would raise the federal minimum wage from $7.25 to $10.10 an hour, and would adjust it annually to keep pace with the cost of living. Let’s hope this bill will pass our recalcitrant Congress.
In the meantime, may the fast-food workers continue their pressure on their employers. Estimates on what a wage increase would add to the cost of a $3 hamburger range from a few pennies to 50 cents.
I’d pay that, wouldn’t you?