The Low Pay Behind America’s Fast Food: Strike Puts Fast-Food Workers’ Struggle in Spotlight

McDonald's employees protest in Detroit. Photo by Fabrizio Costantini
McDonald’s employees protest in Detroit. Photo by Fabrizio Costantini
“And what else do we have to lose…? I mean, we’re already dying slowly in our day-to-day lives, so why not speak up and stand up and let the nation know that we’re suffering? And this is really a cry for help. And this great nation shouldn’t turn their back on working-class people who need help” –Terrance Wise, Kansas City Fast-food Striker

Recently fast-food workers have forced the issue of their low-paying jobs into the public spotlight. Josh Eidelson reports that starting in November 2012 about 200 fast-food employees from multiple chains went on strike in New York City. In an April 2013 follow-up strike participation doubled. In May, fast food workers went on strike in Seattle. With the backing of the Service Employees International Union and other local allies, the strikes spread from NYC to five other cities including Chicago, St. Louis, Detroit, and Milwaukee, Kansas City, and Flint, Michigan. Eidelson contends that “this is by far the largest strike by fast-food workers in the history of the United States.”

Pre-Labor Day protests are scheduled to take place in 35 cities on August 29. This week, organizers intend to expand the campaign into southern and West Coast cities. Workers’ demands include a “living wage”—a raise to $15 per hour—and freedom to unionize. In the process of making these fundamental demands, fast-food strikers are also challenging customers to consider the lives of the human beings behind the counters.

An American Tradition

Fast-food workers have become an important part of Americans’ culinary lives. According to a 2013 study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Americans received 11-percent of their calories from fast-food between 2007 and 2010. As the CDC puts it, “As lifestyles become more hectic, fast-food consumption has become a growing part of the American diet.”

According to Scarborough Research, 43 percent of surveyed adults had visited McDonald’s in the last 30 days, 22 percent had visited Wendy’s, 21 percent visited Burger King, and 20 percent visited Taco Bell. Those defined as “health-conscious consumers” also frequently visited fast-food chains: 36 percent had visited McDonald’s, 22 percent had visited Wendy’s, 17 percent had visited Taco Bell, and 16-percent had visited Burger King.

In fact, a survey by Placed Insights found that as of April 2013 fast food chains were among the top-ten most visited businesses in the U.S., with McDonald’s ranking first, Subway second, Burger King fifth, Wendy’s sixth, and Taco Bell ninth.

Fast-food ad campaigns have long encouraged customers to embrace egocentrism, seeing each individual consumer as the center of the world. For years Wendy’s told customers to “Do what tastes right.” Between 1975 and 1979 McDonald’s told customers, “We do it all for you.” In the 1990s, the company promised, “What you want is what you get.” Summing it up best, Burger King’s consistent slogan has been: “Have it your way.” An ad explaining the slogan reads, “You have the right to have what you want, exactly when you want it. Because on the menu of life, you are ‘Today’s Special.’…We may be the King, but you my friend, are the almighty ruler.”

With aristocratic manifestos like these at the heart of the industry, few customers are pressed to consider questions like, “exactly how much are the people serving me this food making?” American customers are more prone to registering complaints about sub-par or rude service than inquire or complain about worker pay. McDonald’s reports that 1 in 5 customers complain that employees are “rude or unprofessional.” Consideration of the relationship between poor pay and powerlessness and poor customer service is mostly absent in discussions about improving customer satisfaction.

So exactly how much are fast-food workers paid? Drawing on data provided in an industry study, Statista Inc. indicates that in 2010 the average annual income for the fast-food industry’s 3.9 million U.S. employees was $12,278. According to Bloomberg, the Census Bureau’s American Community Surveys indicates that the median earnings for fast food workers during 2009 and 2011 was $18,564, about $500 less than the median income for child caregivers. According to, the average pay for McDonald’s cashiers and crew members is under $8 an hour. The average pay for shift managers is approximately $9.50.

A McDonald’s “crew member” working for $8 an hour, 40 hours a week, 52-weeks a year will earn about $1,387 monthly. This means a crew member who works every weekday for every week of the year, without taking a single workday off for vacation, personal sickness, tending to a family member or any other reason, will make a grand total of $16,640 a year. Even “shift managers” working the same hours at the comparably “high” rate of $9.50 an hour will earn less than $20,000.

A participant in an earlier Kansas City fast food worker strike, Terrance Wise told Democracy Now! he works between 50 and 60 hours a week working for $9.30 an hour at Burger King, where he has been for 8-years, and $7.47 an hour at Pizza Hut. He said he joined the strike because he feels “now is the time for not only me, but all workers all across the nation, to stand up and speak out and come out of the shadows and let the public be aware of how we live our day-to-day lives, which is very poorly. And there needs to be change.”

Just Kids Working for Gas Money?

Public reactions to the fast food strikes have been varied. Some readers commenting on an MSN Money article covering the strikes believe these jobs are meant for new, young workers earning spending money. “I worked those jobs through high school and college but continued to go to school, read, develop marketable knowledge and skills to propel me out of that realm of low wages. The low wages were a motivator for me to rise up the ladder,” writes one person. Another states, “these jobs were never intended to be life long career jobs. they are classic kid summer jobs. classic college kid jobs. classic ‘mom’ jobs while kids are in school between 10 and 2.”

Former chief economist at the Department of Labor, Diana Furchtgott-Roth, also views the issue of fast-food workers’ demands for pay increases through the lens of the “teenage summer job” stereotype. A fellow at the libertarian think tank, The Manhattan Institute for Policy Research, Furchtgott-Roth conflates so-called “unskilled” workers with “teenagers,” contending that increasing wages would ultimately hurt “unskilled workers. The people who, like my teenager, want a summer job. No one’s going to pay my teenager $15 an hour. But my teenager can get $7.25 an hour.”

These ideas are not reflective of present reality. Just 30-percent of fast-food workers today are teenagers. In fact 40-percent are 25 and older, and 70-percent have a high-school degree or better. In addition to being factually mistaken, dismissive assertions that so-called “unskilled labor” is meant for the young are indicative of adult-centrism, a prejudiced, adult-centered ideology that normalizes youthism, discrimination against the young. Arguably, workers should be paid a sum proportionate with the profits they help a company generate not with a particular age.[i] As theorist Henry Giroux notes, young people are among the most marginalized in our society: “young people have been increasingly denied a significant place in an already weakened social contract,” writes Giroux. He adds that “youth are mostly defined as a consumer market, a drain on the economy, or stand for trouble.” In the context above yet another negative category of youthful existence is added: near-worthless laborer.

Not only are many fast-food workers adults, a quarter are raising at least one child. Kansas City striking fast-food worker, Terrance Wise, has three daughters, and says he is so busy working he has little time to see them. “When I get off tonight, they will probably be asleep again. So, it’s consecutive days where I don’t get to see my daughters. And that’s damaging to raising my family. That’s one element that’s really the hardest.” Asked about the popular belief that most fast-food workers are young people without families Wise told Democracy Now’s Amy Goodman, “where I work, in both of my shops, I look around…there are people with families, trying to raise families.”

New York City fast-food worker, Kareem Starks told reporters he has two sons, ages 6 and 12, and that recently he didn’t make enough money to treat his two boys when they successfully finished Kindergarten and fifth grade. “My general manager told me he was going to give me some extra opportunities to make money—extra days. He calls me in on my day off, and three days after that, every day, a different manager sends me home. At the end of the week, I only get a paycheck with 28 hours. I didn’t have enough to do anything for my son [like] buy balloons or take him out to a pizza shop.”

Another obscured fact is that women comprise nearly 70% of fast food and counter workers.[ii] Speaking to her experience as single mom working at McDonald’s, Lisette Ortiz told Forbes she went on strike because her $7.25 an hour pay prevents her from sufficiently providing for her three-year-old daughter. “You can’t live off that. I work on my days off. McDonald’s has to meet us halfway.” Thus one of the fast-food strikers’ slogans: “I can’t survive on $7.25.”

To put the economic circumstances of a single-parent household whose earnings are limited to a fast-food job into perspective consider this: according to North Dakota Department of Health’s food stamp calculator, a single parent caring for a school-age child whose only income was from a typical fast-food job ($1,387 monthly) would qualify for $219 in food assistance.[iii] Critics point out that, in such cases, taxpayers and government are forced to subsidize companies’ low-wage pay, in order to prevent hunger and suffering. Interestingly, many defenders of “market-based” wages are often the same parties seeking to slash government benefits for the poor, including the working poor.

Defenders of these pay standards contend that the fast-food industry’s profitability cannot be sustained if pay goes up. The conservative, industry-backed think-tank, Employment Policies Institute, has responded to strikes with a full-page ad in USA Today contending that any change to the minimum wage will force the industry to “replace employees with less-costly, automated alternatives like touch-screen ordering and payment devices,” ultimately hurting workers. As reported by Slate, the National Restaurant Association’s executive vice president, Scott DeFife, stated through a press release, “Restaurants operate on very thin profit margins. Significant additional labor costs can negatively impact a restaurants’ ability to hire or maintain jobs.”

Critics counter that such claims divert attention from the facts of fast-food economic growth and workers’ rightful claims to be appropriately rewarded for their contributions. According to McDonald’s 2011 Annual Report, “global comparable sales” has increased for 104 consecutive months through December 2011. Meanwhile McDonald’s net income has grown from $3.5 billion in 2006 to $5.5 billion in 2011.[iv]

McDonald’s isn’t the only fast-food chain doing well. Between 2012 and 2013 Burger King’s net income rose from $88.1 million to $117.7 million. And the net income for Yum! Brands Inc., owner of KFC, Pizza Hut and Taco Bell, grew from $264 million to $458 million in one year.

Exploitation, “Not Lovin’ it”

A popular sign at protests satirizes McDonald’s “I’m lovin’ it” slogan, modified to read: “Exploitation, not lovin’ it.” In a society where the vocabulary of ethics, justice and the public good are marginalized and maligned such terms must be defined: Exploitation is the imbalanced and unfair transfer of the value of one group’s labor to another group. Philosopher Iris Marion Young writes that exploitation occurs when “the energies of the have-nots are continuously expended to maintain and augment the power, status, and wealth of the haves.”[v]

Exploitation is wrong because it is a form of injustice. Young’s vision of the just society is one that ensures members of society are able to 1) develop themselves—flourish and 2) play a meaningful role determining the rules and order of society—political autonomy.[vi] Opposite of justice is oppression. To say a person is experiencing oppression is to say “their ability to develop and exercise their capacities and express their needs, thoughts, and feelings” is being unjustifiably inhibited.[vii] Thus exploiting another for personal gain is to oppress someone in a way no reasonable, sensitive person would wish to be treated.

Exploitation is perhaps nowhere clearer than in the stark contrast of CEO and average employee pay. Average CEO pay is 185 times that of the average American worker pay. The gap is even larger among the CEOS at top American companies. A 2011 study done by Equilar, an executive compensation data firm, found that median pay for CEOs at 200 large U.S. companies averaged $10.8 million in 2010. That’s a 23% increase in CEO pay compared to 2009. Another report found that CEOs earned an average of $207,690 per week. It’s also worth noting that CEO compensation has consistently increased (by 725-percent between 1978 and 2011), while worker pay has mostly remained the same (growing 5.7-percent) during the same period.

These contrasts are even starker in the fast-food industry. In 2012 McDonald’s CEO was given a pay package worth $13.8 million, more than three times what he received in 2011. This is a sum that would require a $9.50-an-hour employee, the pay average for a McDonald’s shift manager, to work more than 1.4 million hours. McDonald’s CEO’s pay is 690 times the $20,000 annually pay for McDonald’s shift managers, and 829 times greater than the average annual salary of McDonald’s “crew members.” [viii] Similarly, Wendy’s CEO was paid $4.6 million for four months of work in 2011. As startling as those figures are the CEO-crew member pay gap is even greater at Yum! Brands. In 2011 the company’s CEO received $20.4 million in pay and benefits.

Industry defenders justify the exploitation implied in the immense profits generated by poorly rewarded laborers through what philosopher Val Plumwood calls “backgrounding” or “denied dependence”: regarding the essential work done by members of a particular group as unimportant and inessential. Denied dependence is implied in assertions that workers are replaceable, unimportant, “low skilled” as in of little value, and/or just lucky to have a job. This tactic serves to protect the myth of the self-made man, which is essential to justifying and preserving such severe examples of economic inequality and workplace exploitation.

Arguably the fast-food industry’s contention that wage increases will result in significant job losses[ix] is denied dependence at work. It attempts to convince workers that they should just be happy to have a job, obscuring the reality that 1) if and when the company can save money by replacing workers with machines they will do so; but in the meantime 2) the fact remains their labor is essential to their employer’s profits. Indeed the wealthiest around the world are utterly dependent upon economically exploiting low-end laborers to create, sustain and grow their wealth. Without them their businesses would collapse and their profits would plummet.

Moreover, low-end workers are among the most important customers of goods such as fast-food. This means that businesses not only rely on workers to generate profit within companies as workers, but also outside as customers generating sales. Should all such industries replace people with machines, they would simultaneously rob themselves of customers and, thus, profits.

Plutocratic Fallacies in the Service of Fast-Food Exploitation

Fast-food workers’ strikes should be spurring discussion around important ethical questions such as: “Is it unjust for companies to expand their profits at this rate while paying workers so little?” “Are fast-food workers being exploited?” “Is this exploitation legitimate?” “What does justice require of companies in terms of pay?” “As a customer, what responsibility do I bare for worker treatment and pay?”

Instead popular media discussion tends to overemphasize strictly economic questions at the expense of questions of justice. Speaking on the July 29, 2013 edition of Fox Business’ Varney & Co., Richard Berman of the conservative think-tank, Employment Policies Institute, said: “At $15 an hour many, I won’t say a majority but many fast food restaurants are out of business, the business model just does not support those kind of wages. If people are feeling that they are not being paid adequately, then they have got to find a job someplace else.”

Shifting the debate in this way speaks to the hyper-separation of justice and economics. It also indicates the continued devaluation of a caring-infused ethics in the public sphere in favor of so-called “economic rationalism”[x] and its egoistic, compassionless calculations.  Yet there is much more than “objective” analysis inspiring these calculations. Berman, for example, has ties to industries including fast-food,[xi] and earned $1.16 million in 2011 coordinating campaigns that aid such interests. The fast-food industry and its allies have a vested interest in changing, ignoring or simply denying the legitimate moral components of questions surrounding fast-food worker pay.

Conventional wisdom dismisses the conditions of fast-food and other low-pay jobs on grounds the individuals are responsible for their fate and can pull-themselves up by their own bootstraps. A reader commenting on an article about fast-food strikes writes, “The uneducated, low skilled, intellectually lazy that remain in those jobs over a long period of time make their own situation in life so thus warrant their status.” Another writes, “These types of jobs are starter jobs, for teens, college kids and for retirees to make extra money. If you are trying to raise a family on a minimum wage salary, somewhere your ambition and priorities got out of whack.”

These sentiments are an elaboration of salient principles in conservative political thought. In a 2011 op-ed titled, “How class warfare weakens America,” Paul Ryan touts American income mobility and a survey indicating the vast majority of a group of 500 successful entrepreneurs were from middle-class or lower-class backgrounds. Ryan calls for “civic solidarity” over class solidarity, and condemns “equality of outcome” as a “form of inequality—one that is based on political influence and bureaucratic favoritism.”

Asked about the strikes via email by Salon reporter, Josh Eidelson, Domino’s vice president Tim McIntyre asserted, “Opportunity exists for everyone in our system who’s willing to work hard and focus on rising to the next level. For that reason we don’t focus on an individual, specific wage issue.” McIntyre further noted that he does not “believe unions are necessary for our brand” for reasons including the “tremendous upward mobility” at Domino’s.

Setting aside the merits of contested empirical claims about American economic mobility, such thinking legitimizes the subordination and exploitation of low-wage workers. Collectively, these assertions suggest that the solution to exploitive low-pay is to 1) acquire a better education, 2) climb “upwards” out of assorted service-industry work, and/or 3) work hard to rise through the ranks within the service industry. In short, if you’re working for $7.25 an hour today, worry not, you can work your way up the economic ladder. This endorses the idea that wealthy businesses are not morally obligated to provide workers with a wage that provides for basic wellbeing by the standards of the given society.

Having shifted the debate to focus on the workers’ efforts, such narratives avoid crucial questions, such as: “What entitles a wealthy, successful corporation to pay its workers so little while it profits so much?” To suggest that this is acceptable because these workers live in a nation that supposedly provides them with the opportunity to climb towards better paying jobs is beside the point. Tomorrow’s equality does not justify today’s inequality. To say otherwise suggests that those without a particular socially-exalted skillset or education should expect to be deprived of basic respect and recognition of their moral equality via wages that virtually guarantee present-day impoverishment; that it’s OK to exploit the “uneducated” and “unskilled.” Such assertions violate the basic moral idea at the heart of this nation’s founding, that all are created equal. Poverty, ensured by low-wages, provokes very real suffering and even death. Obtaining a living wage and appropriate benefits is essential in a nation where more than 40,000 people die each year due to inadequate healthcare.[xii]

Many join Berman in arguing that if workers object to their pay, they should “quit and find another job.” This justification of low-pay is a subterfuge, an example of the fallacy of irrelevant thesis (aka “red herring” or “changing the subject”), arguing for a conclusion that is not at issue. In this case, defending exploitive pay on grounds workers can work elsewhere. Putting aside that low-income people are profoundly reliant on hard-to-come-by low-wage jobs, let’s acknowledge that it’s true a Taco Bell employee can in fact quit. But this fact has nothing to do with the fundamental issue at hand: “what justifies a company wracking in record profits while sharing so little of immense profits, which workers help to generate?” The retort, “Because I can!,” is illegitimate. This is the might makes right or appeal to force fallacy. Decent people understand that not everything we can do should be done. Whether or not workers can or should climb to a different economic position is a convenient, industry-friendly diversion of the fundamental moral questions at hand.

These ideas reflect a class bias favoring the interests and experiences of the economically privileged at the expense of those at the bottom. In particular they narrowly conceive of “responsibility” as having everything to do with workers’ decision making and efforts. They are comparably silent about the responsibility of businesses and their leaders and stockholders, namely their responsibility to pay laborers a fair wage, one recognizing the profits they help generate. As Kansas City fast-food striker, Terrance Wise puts it, “We’re doing hard work. And we deserve to get a living wage for what we do.”

The time has come to make visible the small-minded double-standards that emphasize the freedom and responsibility of the disadvantaged worker rather than emphasizing the freedom and responsibility of the comparably powerful and freer employer to do the right thing by fairly sharing wealth that workers help generate.

We should also point out and support businesses that recognize their responsibility. Dr. Bronner’s soap company provides a clear example of a company taking responsibility for the way it conducts business. The company has capped executive compensation at five times that of the lowest-paid position. Employees also receive a no-deductible PPO health insurance plan for themselves and their families.

People who actually frequent fast-food venues can’t really mean it when they say that the answer is for workers to get better jobs. Just imagine if every fast-food worker or every low-wage child caretaker finally got that better job. Who would serve your burgers and who would watch your children? America doesn’t “run on Dunkin,” we “run” on each other’s contributions: the teacher, the journalist, the fast-food worker, the doctor, the garbage collector, and so on. The sooner we disavow the “close-heartedness” or what Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King called “hard-heartedness” that evokes sneers when disempowered people lay claim to their dignity, the better off we will all be.


Jeff Nall holds a PhD in Comparative Studies: Feminism, Gender, and Sexuality and teaches philosophy and gender studies. For more of his work or to contact him go to


[i] I want to thank April Lee Nall for inspiring this addition through our August 23, 2013 conversation.

[ii] Pg.5 The Bureau of Labor Statistics’ category “Fast Food and Counter Workers” is comprised of two subgroups: “Combined food preparation and serving workers, including fast food” (of which women comprise 64.9%) and “counter attendants, cafeteria, food concession, and coffee shop” (of which women comprise 70.8%). The figure cited earlier is based on the average of these two figures. category “Fast Food and Counter Workers”:

[iii] The only cost factored into this scenario was $1,000 in rent.

[iv] “2011 Annual Report,” McDonald’s Corporation, 7.

[v] Iris M. Young, “Five Faces of Oppression,” in Theorizing feminisms: A reader, ed. E. Hackett and S. Haslanger (New York: Oxford University Press, 2006), 6

[vi] Iris M. Young, “Displacing the Distributive Paradigm.” In Ethics in Practice, An Anthology, edited by Hugh LaFollette (Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2002), 541

[vii] Young, “Five Faces,” 4

[viii] I came up with this comparison after reading this thought-provoking article: Claire Gordon, “McDonald’s Server Would Have To Work 550 Years To Earn CEO’s Pay,” AOL, Dece,ber 13, 2012

[ix] The conservative think-tank, Employment Policies Institute, has responded to strikes with a full-page ad in USA Today contending that any change to the minimum wage will force the industry to “replace employees with less-costly, automated alternatives like touch-screen ordering and payment devices,” ultimately hurting workers See the ad here:

[x] Val Plumwood: “Economic rationalism has replaced the classical warrior of earlier rationalism by the corporate warrior of the global economy. It establishes their privilege through the subordination of all other aspects of social life to the form of economic organization controlled by corporations and loaded in their favour, the rationalist ‘free-market.’ The market is portrayed as a detached, disengaged, supremely rational mechanism, free from ‘irrational’ interferences, as the supreme social end and the measure of the worth (‘efficiency’) of other ends. But it can only appear in this neutral and dispassionate guise as ‘rational machinery’ because the historical social relations have selected its rules and established its cast of players in far from neutral ways have been disappeared from view.” Plumwood, Environmental Culture: The Ecological Crisis of Reason (New York: Routledge, 2002), 22.

[xi]EPI funded by industry. EPI is described by Nation’s Restaurant News as a “research organization funded by restaurants, retailers and manufacturers.” “Employment Policies Institute,” Berman Exposed Daniel Schorn, “Meet Rick Berman, A.K.A. ‘Dr. Evil,’” CBS News, February 11, 2009 “…a partial list of Berman’s clients was leaked to the media some years back. Names included Cocoa Cola, Tyson Chicken, Outback Steakhouse and Wendy’s.”

[xii] The exact number is 44,789. Andrew P. Wilper, Steffie Woolhandler, Karen E. Lasser, Danny McCormick, David

H. Bor and David U. Himmelstein, “Health Insurance and Mortality in US Adults,” December 2009.  American

Journal of Public Health. 99(12): 1-7.