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Dec 19, 2013

There is a fascinating battle afoot, and it may not be new but it’s manifesting itself in new ways.

I’m talking about the battle between big business and the working poor. Like I said, nothing new, but still.

Earlier this month, fast-food workers in 100 cities went on strike while demanding a living wage of $15 per hour rather than the federal minimum. Strikes were also held this past summer, and last month, McDonald’s cashier Nancy Salgado crashed an event in which McDonald CEO Jeff Stratton was giving a keynote speech and then announced to the audience at large that her hourly rate of $8.25 wasn’t enough to support her family.

Fast food isn’t the only industry to be targeted by worker advocates. Retailers such as Walmart are getting their share of attention, too.

A push to raise wages

In July, the Council of the District of Columbia passed the Large Retailer Accountability Act, which would have increased the minimum wage for covered employers to $12.50 per hour, had D.C. Mayor Vincent Gray not vetoed it. A spokesperson for Walmart compared the bill to something you’d find in a communist country.

Supporters of the bill, however, claimed that it would “lift thousands of working families in Washington, D.C., out of poverty and support decent wages across the retail industry.”

Meanwhile, it’s been widely reported that the gap between the 1 percent and everyone else is getting bigger and bigger, a fact that’s just not sitting well with advocates for “more equitable distribution of wealth.”

Something borrowed, something new …

Increasingly, however, these advocates are not the traditional unions of old but instead are “worker centers,” community groups usually supported by unions but not bound by all the laws regarding unions because they don’t have continuing bargaining relation-ships with employers.

But the “haves” aren’t taking it on the chin, and they’ve got friends, too, such as the Worker Center Watch, whose mission is to expose what they see as labor union abuses. Amidst public outrage over Black Friday becoming Brown Thursday, the Worker Center Watch advised consumers to “Just buy your gifts, don’t buy their lies.”

Cute.

At a recent National Retail Federation (NRF) Human Resources Executive Summit, Joe Kefauver of Parquet Public Affairs presented Worker Centers: Impacts and Implications, which listed the minimum and living wage, mandated paid time off, wage theft, fair share, and retention of the 40-hour work week as “legislative and regulatory assaults on the business model.”

(Okay, I’ll admit it. That gave me a bit of a shiver. “Retention of the 40-hour work week” a threat? Come on guys!)

The Employment Policies Institute (EPI) has gotten into the fray as well. This past summer, the EPI placed a full-page ad in USA Today to promote their position that a living wage would have negative effects on workers. The EPI has also created a website, Minimumwage.com to educate the public about the “myths” surrounding this debate.

Coulda, woulda, shoulda

Whether employers in the fast food, retail, and hospitality industries could afford to pay workers more has been debated, as has the question of if could means should.

Time magazine recently reported that privately held fast-food companies have seen prof-it margins double at the same time as payroll costs have decreased.

On the retail end, Walmart in particular has received all kinds of criticism amid claims that its wages are subsidized by the government in the form of housing and food assistance received by its low-wage workers. Media reports that Walmart had organized a food drive for its own employees only added fuel to the fire, much like the reports about a McDonald’s employee budgeting manual recommending that employees have second jobs.

Still others claim that the debate over low wages won’t gain real traction so long as retailers such as Walmart receive more than 300 applications for each job opening.

If you’re comfortably ensconced in a middle-class existence, I think it’s pretty easy and all too tempting to dismiss this battle as having very little to do with you.

But I think about that 40-hour work week, and FLSA (Fair Labor Standards Act) regulations (sure, they’re a bit of a pain to interpret sometimes, but I wouldn’t want to see them go away), and the FMLA (Family and Medical Leave Act), and Title VII, and I have to admit — I believe the workplace is better for these rights that previous generations of workers have fought for and won.

So I ask again — is this most recent fight a sign of things to come, or simply business as usual?

What do you think?

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